Literature vs. Adaptation: Middlemarch, ‘Honest Representation of Human Nature’

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When first attempting to read Middlemarch the 800 pages ahead makes it seem like a daunting task, but for those wondering if there is an alternative to an arduous read, there is! During the 19th century, Mary Ann Evans used the pseudonym George Eliot in order to publish her works in the literary sphere. Her most famous novel, Middlemarch, was published in eight instalments over the course of two years and followed an array of characters who inhabit the provincial village of Middlemarch. In 1994, the BBC adapted the novel for a televised series, releasing a six-episode series covering the events of the novel.

With realistic characters and intriguing detailed accounts of life in Middlemarch, this novel has the potential to be a bookworm’s dream. Although themes of provincial life, marriage and the role of women in society may not always seem appetising topics to most readers, the honest representation of human nature is as relatable today as it was in the late 19th century. In terms of benefits of literature, this novel is a prime example which presents the scope that literature allows readers to imagine characters and places as they wish, which is a massive part of the reading process. It’s important to remember that all adaptations have some artistic license regarding characters and costumes — the BBC adaptation incorporates authentic period costumes and settings which resemble what Eliot utilises in the novel. Some critics have previously argued that the series lacks boldness in its creativity. However, Eliot’s novel gives very little room for manoeuvre in terms of character and plot; the novel is so detailed it’s simply impossible and incredibly unfaithful to the novel to inject artificial drama to the plot.

The BBC adaptation stays true to the novel, but the most remarkable aspect of the adaptation is the casting of characters whom we meet across the six episodes. Although the novel is centred on approximately three main characters, two unexpected characters become firm favourites — Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, played by Juliet Aubrey and Rufus Sewell, respectively. Both Aubrey and Sewell portray their characters in the way any fan of the novel would hope; their performances enhances the personalities of Dorothea and Will and they also focus on perfecting individual nuances and quirks which are key to a playing a realistic character. Adaptations are rarely a mirror image of the original work, but the BBC series is impressively accurate on so many details the line of original and adaptation is blurred.

It is a common place saying amongst avid-readers that adaptations are never as good as the book. In the case of the 1994 BBC adaptation of Middlemarch this is not necessarily true; if someone were to watch the series without having previously read the novel, they would have a good understanding of the plot and characters, whilst enjoying the series. Isn’t this the general criteria for a standard TV adaptation? Therefore, in theory the BBC adaptation ticks all boxes so it should be considered as good, or perhaps better than George Eliot’s original novel? However, if the adaptation is true to the story and presents it incredibly well, surely it’s down to experience to say whether literature or adaptation is better? In summary, the original, literary Middlemarch is a far better experience in comparison to watching the TV series, yet if reading 800 pages is a daunting task, the BBC adaptation is a sensible replacement.

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Third year English student interested in literature, art and music. Better known for my love of military history, planes, trains and automobiles (especially classic Ford Mustangs)!

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