This afternoon, I finished my month-long reread of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White! It’s a doorstopper, just over 600 pages—an intricate mix of anxiety-inducing action, tedious legal investigations, and quirky characters that made me laugh out loud (and sigh a little).
I’ll review the book properly once I have more time at my disposal. For now, let’s talk about the BBC adaptation I watched with my family this past Christmas break. This is a 5-part series from 2018, starring Jessie Buckley as Marian Halcombe and Olivia Vinall as Laura Fairlie.
A quick blurb, for the uninitiated…The Woman in White (pub. 1859–1860) follows three young women—the aristocratic and gorgeous Laura Fairlie, her boyish half-sister Marian Halcombe, and a mysterious girl dressed all in white and aching under a terrible secret. Laura falls hard for her winsome tutor, Walter Hartwright, but she has already promised her late father she will marry Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet whose profuse politeness covers a dark heart. As her only close friends in the world, Walter and Marian strive to protect Laura from her fiance’s schemes, but their wits and loyalty are tested to the utmost when his friend (and their uncle by marriage) arrives on the scene: the suavely sinister Count Fosco.
Victorian Novels Are Hard to Adapt
Anyone who enjoyed Little Dorrit (2008) back in the day remembers how the last episode’s “big reveal” left us all scurrying to Google for answers. Well… Charles Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins both seemed to have a knack for elaborate plot conclusions. The Woman in White is no exception!
To their credit, the filmmakers of this 2018 adaptation took their time in explaining the story and made use of flashbacks to emphasize the mystery. Overall, they did a faithful job, as good as could be done, but the ending was still confusing. Certain details (such as the high stakes for Sir Percival) were also glossed over or not given sufficient clarity. The other version of this story I’ve watched (1997 with Justine Waddell) simplifies the story greatly and is thus better suited to the screen, though not as true to the book. It’s actually a very good example of how what works in a book does not always work well on the screen.
One peculiar change both the 1997 and 2018 version made was to make Percival out to be more vile than he is described in the book. I don’t think it was strictly necessary. Collins intentionally chose Fosco as the main antagonist and did not see fit to give Percival any more than baseline complexity as a character.
…But Don’t Make It Harder
Speaking of Count Fosco: one of the biggest changes of the 2018 adaptation is his characterization. He is one of the most iconic characters in all of Victorian literature—famous for being immensely overweight, babying his pet mice and birds, and gadding about town as a jovial yet deadly old man. Compared in the novel to Napoleon Bonaparte, Fosco is Marian’s match in a game of wits, as well as her persistent admirer.
Unfortunately, Fosco in the 2018 series (played by Riccardo Scamarcio) has all of the villainy and none of the levity. He spends most of the episodes creeping around Blackwater Park, attempting to outright seduce Miss Halcombe, and serving up threatening advice to Sir Percival.
The problem with a handsome and brooding Fosco is he completely fails to be the comic relief this story needs. Collins seems to have realized, like Dickens always did, that you need some chuckles to navigate morbid stories and contour the plot, even if the humor comes from the bad guy himself. Furthermore, it is to book-Fosco’s credit that he can still cast a romantic spell over the ladies and command as much respect as a younger, more athletic man. Altering his age and appearance to be more glamorous is a step backwards for representation in media—and without all his funny quirks intact, the narrative arc feels relentlessly flat and oppressive.
In general, subtlety was not a strong point of this series. Percival Glyde (Dougray Scott) looked and acted Obviously Evil from the minute he appeared on screen. Walter Hartwright (Ben Hardy) looked like an Obvious Angel. A few critical reviews also called out the constant use of haunting music in the background, which I concur was unnecessary, although not as egregious.
What I Really Liked
Jessie Buckley was solid as Marian, and her characterization rang true to me. She is an attractive actress, but I appreciated that the makeup artists allowed her to fit Walter’s description of “ugly”/plain (by Victorian standards). She and Vinall had fantastic chemistry, and all the scenes between them were deeply touching.
Laura was a lot quirkier than I remember from the book—synesthesia, odd comments, etc—but in the end, I warmed up to this take on her character and appreciated the extra dimension the scriptwriters added. You really get a sense of her metamorphosis as a person in this version.
Though the series felt slow in parts, still I enjoyed the slow pacing. I liked being able to invest in a scene and the fact so much of the book was included. The relationship between Laura and Walter was given plenty of time to develop, which is really important for the integrity of the plot. The two sisters and Walter had a warm family dynamic going on before the big drama hit, which was exactly as it should be.
Visually, this series was stunning. I loved the interior shots especially. I would describe the film as “symbolist” in that a lot of the choices were clearly made for symbolic reasons… Laura wears white all the time (unlikely in reality but meaningful here), Count Fosco’s home is dripping with red curtains, etc. Some of the camera work was perhaps a bit more creative than I like in a 19th-century drama, but the shots were framed very intentionally and the designer in me appreciated it.
Overall… I’d give this show 3.5 out of 5 stars. Not everyone is going to like it, but it has its strong points. However, if you want to meet the real Fosco, you simply must read the book.
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