When Brit scribe Andrew Davies sets out to bring a great work of fiction to the screen, he doesn’t avoid watching previous versions so as not to be unduly influenced. Instead, he actively seeks them out.
“Of course I do. I want to see what I might do the same way and what I want to do differently,” says the vet adapter of close to two dozen classic novels, including Emmy contender “Masterpiece Theater: Bleak House,” recent winner of the BAFTA award as drama serial, kudos that Davies shared.
“But the main reason is that because I’ve usually seen them before, one can run a risk of unconscious plagiarism, as there’s an awful possibility that you think you’ve found a unique way of handling a scene that isn’t in fact your own writing. It’s like composing your own ‘original’ tunes, as I like to do, and realizing that they’re actually Mozart or the Beatles every time.”
The BBC’s 1985 “Bleak House” struck him as “a very good adaptation, wonderful performances, but rather slow by today’s standards.
“I hoped we could have an edgy and quick style that would feel modern even though it’s a period drama.” Principal director Justin Chadwick shaped mini’s contemporary look by using fluid multiple cameras and shooting rehearsals.
In addition, “the novel’s heroine, Esther, had always irritated me. Such a smug little goody-goody. I thought, there are things I can do here; I can make her more sparky and lively for the audience to relate to.” By emphasizing her strength and clear-eyed vision of the world, he cracked the character, helping thesp Anna Maxwell Martin to walk off with the actress BAFTA for her portrayal.
Wrestling with an enormous, complicated 19th century novel is in many ways simpler than adapting a contempo piece, avers Davies, but both offer similar challenges.
On “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” he says, “we had such arguments! Helen Fielding kept saying, ‘It’s about modern life, and the urban family,’ and I’m saying, ‘No, no, it has to be about Bridget’s search for love and which guy she’ll end up with.’ So it’s the same kind of struggle. You always have to find the spine of the story.”