- The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature, 1848–1920: Dramatizing Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and The Woman in White by Karen E. Laird
In The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature, 1848–1920: Dramatizing Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and The Woman in White, Karen E. Laird braids together studies of the Victorian novel, nineteenth-century theater, and early cinema to argue that nineteenth-century playwrights “established a language, theory, and practice of adaptation that was foundational to the development of narrative cinema” and promoted innovative interpretations of some of the period’s most popular texts (2). Laird selects a trio of canonical Victorian authors—Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins—whose novels were adapted for the stage shortly after (or during) their publication. Writing at the intersection of Victorian studies, theater history, film history, and adaptation theory, Laird provides a valuable “cultural history of adaptation in the long nineteenth century” that highlights the role of theatrical adaptation in establishing seminal film conventions (2). She acknowledges the challenges of her “transdisciplinary approach,” anticipating but not fully avoiding the potential objections of experts in the three fields with which she engages (14). However, the cross-disciplinary conversation that Laird facilitates more than justifies any deficiencies in specialized knowledge of the individual fields. This book is an important resource for scholars of theater, film, and literary studies, as well as anyone probing the relationships between them.
Alternating between chapters on the theater and film adaptations of each novel, The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature highlights the often unrecognized influence of theatrical adaptations on the form of Victorian novels and their subsequent film adaptations. Laird attributes novelistic features such as David Copperfield’s (1849–50) first-person point of view to Victorian authors’ anxieties that stage adaptations could preempt the conclusion of serialized novels. More significantly, Laird traces the influence that theatrical adaptations exerted on the development of early cinema. In her discussion of Jane Eyre (1847), Laird notes that “updating” the novel meant “modernizing conventions of Victorian stage melodrama to suit the new media of film,” and she outlines “five important legacies from Brontë’s Victorian adapters”: “the ‘thrill’ factor, morally polarized villains and heroes, dysfunctional families and Oedipal dynamics, the plight of the single or abandoned woman, and cinematic experimentation and special effects” (54). Chapters on David Copperfield highlight the effects of the commemoration of Dickens’s death (in theater) and his centenary (in film) on “the narrative techniques that would become a hallmark of Classical Hollywood Cinema” (113). Sections on The Woman in White (1859–60) demonstrate that theatrical adapters eschewed the conventions of sensation drama, while film adapters restored the sensation novel’s forms of shock and suspense.
Laird’s cultural history challenges readers to employ adaptation history to rethink their interpretations of these canonical novels and revise their understandings of their reception history. She argues that playwrights and filmmakers “used melodramatic storytelling to move entirely beyond fidelity to the written word” (205). Using meticulous close readings of scripts and paratexts, Laird demonstrates that adapters “continually altered three major strands of the Victorian novel—gender, class, and nation—to create new meanings and interpretations out of familiar texts” (9). For instance, chapters on Jane Eyre expose [End Page 508] the theater’s “radical emphasis on socio-economic” disparities in Brontë’s novel (17). Stage adaptations by J. Courtney and John Brougham shifted the setting from the aristocratic upstairs to the proletariat downstairs. Laird notes that such plays reveal new interpretations that are “markedly different from the literary reviews which for so long constituted our historical understanding” of the novels (43). Chapters on David Copperfield examine the influence of Dickens’s biography and death on theatrical adapters who focused on the “fallen woman’s plight” and on film adapters who cultivated “nostalgia for Dickens’s England” (78, 114). Chapters on The Woman in White explore the changed “nuances of status, class, and wealth” that accompanied the novel’s adaptation abroad (200).