Monday, October 24, 2011

Andrew Davies's Screenplays

Instead of a review this week, I have a little critique about screenplays.

There's a name that you see quite a bit during the beginning credits of many period dramas, and it's Andrew Davies, the screenplay writer. He has written the screenplays for many period dramas: Pride and Prejudice (1995), Middlemarch (1994), Emma (1997), The Way We Live Now (2001), He Knew He Was Right (2004), Little Dorrit (2008), Sense and Sensibility (2008), Wives and Daughters (1999)... The list is huge!
My opinion of him is a little mixed, though. So here is my opinion on his screenplays, both the good and the not-so-good.

The Good

1. He stays pretty close to the original novel
When I first read Pride and Prejudice, I noticed how the 1995 miniseries was very close to the book. Really, I can only remember a couple of differences between the two. And one of the positive points about 2008 Sense and Sensibility was that, plotwise, it stayed fairly close to the book (as much as I love the 1995 Sense and Sensibility - which is still my favorite Sense and Sensibility adaptation - the plot wasn't as close to the book as it could have been). From what I've both read and seen an adaptation of, Andrew Davies keeps fairly close to the story line. Sure, some things are different (which is hard to avoid), but overall, he stays close to the book.
2. He keeps most of the language from the original novel
For a lot of screenplay writers, language can be modernized which can be a little annoying. Andrew Davies has a way of keeping the original language and at the same time make it lively (or maybe that's more of the actors that do it, but surely the script has something to do with it). He doesn't really modernize the language in his screenplays (at least, nothing that I've noticed) which I like since it is more believable for the time period.

3. If he has to add something to the screenplay to make a scene flow easier, he does a good job making it seem like it's from the original novel.
With any story, there are going to be little gaps in the books. With Jane Austen, for example, sometimes there isn't dialogue in a scene, but instead the scene is described (a number of the proposal scenes, for instance, as described). What Andrew Davies does well is that he fills in those little gaps where there is not dialogue in the book with his own dialogue and makes it sound like it came from the original author. It is a talent that is very useful for writing screenplays.

The Not-So-Good

1. He writes great screenplays...when he has enough time.
Many of Andrew Davies's greatest screenplays are for miniseries: in other words, it takes 4+ hours to tell a story. When you have four or more hours of time for a period drama, you really get a good sense of the characters and the story. By the end of the miniseries, you really understand nearly the whole story and really understand the characters. However, when Andrew Davies only gets two, maybe two and a half, hours for a screenplay, something goes awry. The screenplay that comes to my mind is the 2007 Northanger Abbey. Northanger Abbey 2007 had the makings of a great period drama: great cast, great costuming, great scenery. But the screenplay was lacking; many things were left out in order for additional scenes (more on that). Two hours, in my opinion, wasn't enough to tell Northanger Abbey without the additional scenes, let alone with all the additional scenes.

2. Less is more
I know, I know -- I said that Andrew Davies does a good job with extra scenes, but to a certain extent. In any book, sometimes there can be little gaps between scenes (like I said before). So when adapting any book, sometimes you have to fill  in those gaps with extra scenes. When these extra scenes are done well, it can help with the understanding of the story, but you have to be careful not to overdo it or else "a great deal of [the period drama] must be invention." Sure, there were some extra scenes in Pride and Prejudice (1995) that weren't in the original book, but there weren't so many that they overtook the scenes that are supposed to be there. What I'm talking about is when it gets excessive. One of the things I didn't like about Emma 1997 was all the imaginings of Emma -- Harriet and Mr. Elton were getting married: oh! just Emma's imagination!; Mr. Knightley marrying Jane Fairfax? But what about little Henry?!: oh! just Emma's imagination again!; Harriet and Mr. Knightley? NO!: seriously, Emma? Seriously? With everything that Emma was imagining, it got to be a bit excessive, but at the very least for the 1997 Emma, those imaginings were based off of Emma's thoughts in the book (however over-emphasized they were). Other screenplays suffer from invention a lot more. Sense and Sensibility (2008) had numerous scenes added that were not in the book and didn't add to the miniseries: suddenly Colonel Brandon and Willoughby are exchanging rough words ("What are your intentions towards Miss Marianne?" "And what right have you to ask me?") and then sword fighting? Jane Austen does mention a duel between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby; she doesn't say what method the two men used during this duel, but more than likely it wasn't a sword fight. Maybe sword fighting sells? I don't know, but it didn't add to the plot. Northanger Abbey had a similar problem: too many added scenes, not enough from the novel, and not enough time as it should have had. These examples are proof to the phrase "Less is more."

3. Skipping Scenes (or Worrying about Skipping Scenes) is Not Fun
This kind of expands off of two, but it's kind of on it's own too. For the most part in classic literature, nothing gets graphic or is shown. If any scandal is mentioned at all, it's mentioned very discreetly. Therefore, it is unnecessary to add those scenes considering that you could completely skip those scenes and not miss anything in the plot. Andrew Davies (it seems recently) has been adding these unnecessary scenes. For example, in the Sense and Sensibility, you don't hear about any scandal until the second half of the book, and even then it's very brief; in the 2008 version, the scandal that was so briefly mentioned was shown in the very first scene. Or how in Northanger Abbey 2007, Catherine's dreams were a bit mature for her, and considering Catherine's innocent nature, this was not only inaccurate, but also unnecessary. Or in Little Dorrit there was the one scene that was a completely different scene in the book. These scenes take what would otherwise be great period dramas and make them a little difficult to watch. Sure, they can be easy to skip if you know what to look for, but it's not fun waiting to skip scenes; it's much preferred to simply watch a period drama all the way through. He didn't always add in these kinds of scenes -- Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters, and Emma got along well without them. This seems to be more of a recent trend. You don't need those scenes to make a great period drama.

That would summarize my opinion on Andrew Davies's screenplays. Overall, the man is talented in writing screenplays, but when he does one or more of the three things that aren't so good, the screenplays aren't as good. We can hope that his future period dramas don't have some of the problems that some of his screenplays have had...

God Bless,
 God Bless, Miss Elizabeth Bennet


  1. You summarized my thoughts about Andrew Davies exactly. LOL, I had a post like this in my head, but now I don't think I'll actually write it, because you said everything I wanted to say but you said it a lot better. If that makes any sense.
    The one scene that is "totally not in the book but totally fit the story" is the famous Lake Scene in P&P. It makes the whole Lizzy/Darcy chance encounter SO much more awkward. Perfect.

  2. I agree with your assessments. :)

    When I started watching He Knew He Was Right, it said it was written by Andrew Davies, and I was a little scared there would be something inappropriate, since it was made in rather recent years...fortunately there wasn't.

  3. Miss Dashwood,
    I remember in my English class, we were watching parts of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (I was, of course, disappointed that we didn't watch the whole thing...) and when we watched the lake scene, my teacher said "This is not in the book," but all I could think was "Well, Jane Austen didn't say that it didn't happen" ;)

    I was a little concerned that there was going to be something inappropriate in He Knew He Was Right from a trailer that I saw. The trailer was a combination trailer for He Knew He Was Right, Wives and Daughters, Daniel Deronda, and The Way We Live Now, and it turned out that the scene that I thought was in He Knew He Was Right that looked inappropriate was actually from Daniel Deronda. I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't in He Knew He Was Right. But yeah, He Knew He Was Right was a fairly recent miniseries by Andrew Davies, but there weren't any inappropriate scenes in there. Definitely an exception to the rule, thankfully.

  4. I know exactly the trailer you're talking about: that 'BBC Drama' one they have on almost every BBC DVD!
    It annoys me how it's misleading...even the parts they showed that actually WERE HKHWR made it look like something shocking when it wasn't! ha

  5. I wouldn't get my hopes up about Mr. Davies moving away from adding shocking scenes. I saw a recent interview with him and I was rather annoyed when he said, in so many words, that he revels in adding those dreadful scenes. His ideas about the authors' intentions were very 21st century.:( Unfortunate, because my sister and I think he did a very good job on his earlier adaptations.

  6. I enjoy most of Andrew Davies' adaptations, there are so many brilliant moments and he's had a hand in so many period dramas! But your Not-So-Good points are quite valid. You summed his up pretty well!


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