The 1991 TV production of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, a tale set in the late 18th century, is one of many costume dramas only available on region 1 DVDs. Fortunately for me, though, it was shown over here in the UK on satellite TV station TCM, so I was able to record it from there rather than forking out for it on import.
The film has a fine cast, headed by Iain Glen in the title role as Adam and Patsy Kensit as Hetty Sorrel. Glen was then young and handsome with a lot of wavy hair, and would surely look almost unrecognisable to anyone who only knows him from his recent starring role in a very different costume drama, Channel 4’s City of Vice. Kensit, a well-known film and TV actress in Britain, had long dark hair rather than her familiar blonde locks, and to me looked somehow a little as I imagine Hardy’s Tess, especially in a glimpse of her eating strawberries seductively.
I wonder if maybe Kensit was turned into a brunette in order to create more of a visual contrast between her and the blonde Susannah Harker, who plays quiet preacher Dinah. The other lead actor is James Wilby, star of many costume dramas, as Arthur Donnithorne, the charming but weak young heir to the local squire, who tempts Hetty into a disastrous affair, then deserts her.
The film was scripted by Maggie Wadey, probably best-known to period drama fans as the screenwriter for two Jane Austen adaptations, the recent TV version of Mansfield Park (2007) and the older BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey. Director was Giles Foster, who has also been at the helm for a number of other costume dramas, including the TV version of another George Eliot classic, Silas Marner (1985). The film somehow already feels a little dated, with a late 1980s/early 90s flavour which I can’t quite put my finger on – but that isn’t really a criticism, just an observation. I do like it and feel it gets the essence of the story, although, as with any short film from a classic novel, inevitably a lot is lost.
The main thing which is lost from the book is George Eliot’s voice as narrator, constantly going inside the minds of the characters and showing their internal battles. I suppose maybe a voiceover could have given some flavour of this – but, without one, perhaps there’s more freedom for viewers to decide how to react to the characters. I felt that Hetty is made more sympathetic in the film than she is in the novel, where Eliot includes long discussions of her selfishness and vanity and makes it seem that her love for Arthur is more a love of being flattered than anything going deeper. I know it was very daring to make a “fallen woman” so central to the novel and show what could drive her to such desperation, but a lot of the time in the book she isn’t a very likeable character.
The film has a striking beginning, in a courtroom setting, with a weeping Hetty being sentenced to death for killing her child – then the story of how she was driven to this unfolds in retrospect. The knowledge of this tragic outcome means that the beautiful countryside seen in the village scenes is never allowed to feel idyllic, because there is always the shadow of what is going to happen hanging over it.
A lot of the time the village feels positively oppressive, and it’s easy to see why Hetty longs to escape it, even though her aunt and uncle gently laugh at her for daring to think about living anywhere else or becoming a ladies’ maid – a job which, as they point out, would be much tougher than she thinks. I thought the film really brought out how similar Hetty and Adam are in some ways – they are both dissatisfied with the world around them and long to escape, to “make something more” of themselves, and they also both fix on someone to love without really knowing the other person. Late on in the film, after the tragedy of Hetty’s secret pregnancy is revealed, Adam whispers that he never really knew her. Hetty never really knew Arthur either.
The drama mainly focuses on the two characters of Adam and Hetty, with Adam showing his emotions more, while Hetty has to hold everything in, hiding her feelings as she hides her pregnancy. Harker doesn’t get so much screen time as Dinah, but still gives an impression of quiet strength – she is another determined character, and pours herself into her preaching as Adam pours himself into his work as a carpenter. Wilby is also good as Arthur, giving the character a slight air of world-weariness despite his youth.
Another delight of this film is all the performances by the actors in smaller roles, especially Julia McKenzie and Jean Marsh, who are wonderful as Hetty’s aunt, Mrs Poyser, and Adam’s mother, Lisbeth, respectively.
For me the two most striking scenes are country scenes which are miles apart from one another, both very near the end of the film. One comes directly after a scene set in the courtroom where Hetty is found guilty of murder. The next scene is jarringly different, as we are greeted with brilliant sunlight and rural celebrations – but then Hetty appears in a horse-drawn cart There’s the sudden realisation that these celebrations are not for maypole-dancing or a church fete, but in anticipation of her hanging which is eventually changed to transportation, robbing the crowd of their spectacle.
The other memorable scene is the ending, where Adam realises at last that he has been falling in love with Dinah – after his mother points out to him that she is the one he should marry – and runs outside to propose to her in the fields. I’m now wondering if Maggie Wadey might have remembered adapting this scene when writing the ending for her version of Mansfield Park. Edmund’s belated realisation that he loves Fanny (with some help from his mother too) and the outdoor setting seem quite similar.