The New York Times
Gillian Anderson, in 'Bleak House'
A fantasy for screenwriters might go something like this. The phone rings. A producer is on the line. "We'd like you to adapt a big, fat, sprawling novel for television," the producer says. "But" - and here is the fantasy part - "don't feel as if you have to cut anything."
Something like that happened to the veteran television writer Andrew Davies, who was called upon to adapt Charles Dickens's "Bleak House" for "Masterpiece Theater." "What the difference is with this compared with other recent adaptations is that we didn't boil it down too much," said Mr. Davies, whose version of the tale will be seen on PBS in six parts beginning tonight. "We went into it with the idea of including as much as possible."
That, of course, is quite different from the task that faces most adapters, who must jettison characters, scenes, plotlines to get a novel down to the length of a feature film or television movie. The "Masterpiece Theater" production, which was broadcast to acclaim last year in England and stars Gillian Anderson as the mournful Lady Dedlock and Charles Dance as the callous lawyer Tulkinghorn, is full of the types of smaller roles that character actors and makeup artists relish. For Mr. Davies, the task became more delicate than a simple slashing; the trick was to find the balance between retaining Dickens's full story and maintaining the interest of a television generation.
"I wanted to keep a really fast pace," he said, "but if you don't include all those minor characters and funny little subplots, you're really missing the essential Dickens."
The story, full of mystery and grit, involves a contested fortune, budding romances and Lady Dedlock's hidden past, which Tulkinghorn, her husband's lawyer, digs into mercilessly. Before the various threads are tied up, a number of lives are in shambles.
Mr. Davies's vision of a quick pace fit nicely with the approach taken by the director, Justin Chadwick, who employed hand-held cameras, quick cuts and zooms that give the film a different look than most screen versions of classic novels; it's the Victorian era served with a "CSI" touch.
"What I wanted to do is get down and dirty with it, make it as real as possible," Mr. Chadwick said. And, he added, although the project included well-known stars like Mr. Dance ("Gosford Park") and Ms. Anderson (Scully in the long-running series "The X-Files"), he didn't want it to be a star vehicle. Instead, he was eager that the lesser-known members of the cast, like Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays the young woman named Esther around whom much of the action swirls, not be intimidated.
"I wanted them to feel that everybody had a level playing field," Mr. Chadwick said. "A lot of the time the actors didn't even know where the cameras were."
Both men credited a long-dead collaborator for keeping things moving: Dickens himself. "He was a guy who walked around London writing, observing," Mr. Chadwick said. "And that's how the camera is."
Mr. Davies added, "If Dickens was writing now, he'd be writing for television and for the cinema; he had such a terrifically visual imagination."
Ms. Anderson said she didn't grasp at first just how bold the Davies/Chadwick vision was. "When the cameras would all of a sudden jerk away from the scene we were doing, I got the sense that they were doing something different," she said, "but I didn't realize until I saw it on television some of the extremes they were working with."
She also didn't realize that a few of Mr. Chadwick's touches, like the occasional dollop of eerie music, might put her fans in mind of an
"X-Files" episode. "There were definitely some similarities that I had not realized were going to be there," she said. "It kind of took me aback at first, but it grew on me so quickly."
Yet it was the contrast with "The X-Files," rather than the fleeting similarities, that most appealed to her. "It was just completely different from anything I had done before, and I was interested in the challenge of it," she said.
The program's popularity in England, she said, was a pleasant surprise - "Everybody was either taping it or home watching it" - but it did cost her some of the anonymity she had finally begun to enjoy since "The X-Files" left the air in 2002. "Whereas before I was able to go around town incognito," she said from London, "now I'm not."