With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series or genre, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. —L.P. Hartley
The plumage of the 19th-century literary adaptation is easily identified by those who dislike such birds. Voluminous dresses, verdant hills, grimy streets, thwarted love, buckets of tears: It’s everything you didn’t like about the book, only with a soundtrack and a rain machine.
Certainly, there are adaptations that swing so wide as to disconnect themselves from the definitive moments of the source material, which rarely make up in novelty what was lost in translation. (Unless it’s a full deconstruction, of course; any time TV wants to deliver the miniseries equivalent of 1999’s feature film Mansfield Park, I will be there with bells on.) There are also adaptations that tread so precisely along the events of the book that watching it feels like a six-hour cheat for an exam, even though the spirit of the thing might not have made the leap alongside the painstaking dialogue. The best, whether a lighthearted pastoral or a camp free-for-all, will always have a balance of canny casting, evocative settings, and a sense of insight into both the work it’s drawing from and the wider world around it.
As no two people read the same book, a period piece is rarely all things to all viewers. But several have calling cards that set them apart from other adaptations of their kind—making the novels as well as the adaptations seem evergreen. In fact, British period pieces tend to feel like a bucolic Victorian village of their own. The same faces appear again and again with small-town familiarity, one generation slowly giving way to another. This list is only a glimpse of these wide and tangled webs of thespian custody, which is frankly begging for a drinking game. (Rufus Sewell appeared in Middlemarch, then went to the big screen for Woodlanders with Jodhi May, who came back to TV to feature in Daniel Deronda—with Romola Garai, who’d go on to be Emma—and The Mayor Of Casterbridge with Ciaran Hinds, who must just have his frock coats forwarded at this point.)
In keeping with the little town of period series, a few august figures can hold enormous sway. The mayor of this Casterbridge might well be screenwriter Andrew Davies, who followed his first Victorian adaptation, 1994’s Middlemarch, with nearly a dozen others, including Pride And Prejudice, Wives And Daughters, The Way We Live Now, and Bleak House (which make up a quarter of the titles on this list). Given the disparate source materials, it would stand to reason that while it’s important to keep the individual spirit of the work, there’s a trick to composing these pieces as both relatively faithful and suitably cinematic—one Davies has clearly cracked.
There’s also the political value of an incisively drawn Victorian adaptation. The century saw a boom in publishing—both thanks to the new (relative) affordability of books and the enormous dissemination of newspapers and magazines in which novels could be serialized. (There is in fact such an embarrassment of riches to be found among these literary adaptations that this top 10 list is limited to one per author.) This exponentially larger platform meant an ever wider range of material, from the thoughtful brushstrokes of small-town character studies to the burgeoning mystery genre, which Gothic took to new heights of hidden corpses even as a new era of psychological-study dramas took a distinctly feminist turn. And this doesn’t begin to account for the dedicated satire. Perhaps no literary era before this had been quite so openly derisive of itself in both form and content; Dickens, Trollope, Wilde, and their contemporaries turned an unblinking eye on the industrial avarice and social hypocrisy of their age (and, occasionally, on the overwrought paeans of their fellow writers).
Those satires have aged the best of the lot—mocking what the passage of time has proven needed mocking, and often looking toward the future with a cynical surety that the coming generations would know little better than this one. But even for those works that are frozen in time, or reveal more of the era around them by accident than by design, a good adaptation will apply a modern formula without disrupting the source. It will tease out the most complex readings of its characters (a benefit of having several hours of television as a canvas), let the camera describe the moors and the rooftops of Bath, and perhaps most importantly, bring new context to things that have been lost. Those in Austen’s era and a generation after would have innately understood the geometry of country dancing; to bring it to the screen is to raise it from the dead. When done well, the very nature of the form illuminates a foreign country until it starts to look a lot like home.
Persuasion (1995): At the risk of hyperbole, the BBC’s nuanced take on Jane Austen is perhaps the gold standard of literary adaptations. With Nick Dear’s understated and insightful screenplay as its map, director Roger Michell brings the novel to life by giving its setting room to breathe. The costumes are accurately dowdy, the dances appropriately amateurish, the various houses perfectly suited to their owners, and the night scenes shot in greasy shadows by candlelight. Amanda Root, whose still waters run deep, centers the story as Anne, a locus for impeccably acted characters from several disparate classes, all occupying a liminal era of post-18th-century upheaval, just before Victorian social stratification began to cement itself. Persuasion stands out among its peers by feeling so utterly lived in, its strictures absorbed rather than explained, with the courage to leave volumes unsaid. It’s a film perfectly suited to Austen’s most mature and introspective novel; both are wise enough to temper melancholy satire with a little hope.
Alice In Wonderland (1966): Maybe there was no better time to adapt Lewis Carroll’s fantastic childhood fable than the mid-1960s, in which playing cards were one of the tamer things strangers turned into after you’ve eaten something that made you 10 feet tall. But this adaptation has an edge that hews back to some of the earliest silver-screen adaptations of the tale, when it was understood there was something frightening beneath all that fantastic. It’s a glimpse of adulthood as antagonist, in an era that reclassified and fetishized childhood as a class luxury. Clever dream-logic camera work and design from director Jonathan Miller captures the lush nonsense of this world even amid deliberately everyday sets and costumes. A cadre of character greats (John Gielgud, Peter Sellers) fill the supporting roles. And Anne-Marie Mallik (in her only screen role) delivers as surly and otherworldly an Alice as has ever graced the screen, effortlessly capturing the frustration that propels this adaptation through every surreal set-piece.
Middlemarch (1994): George Eliot had a deep affinity for quietly desperate characters trapped by circumstances and struggling to maintain that elusive Victorian spiritual trophy—a good character—against inevitable moral compromise. Despite the difficulty bringing that lingering psychology to the screen, several television adaptations have been made of her work. But Middlemarch is considered her masterpiece, and the 1994 miniseries deftly maintains the quietly stifling atmosphere of the novel, a collection of psychological studies in a bell jar that slowly extinguishes hope. The contemplative tone and deliberate pacing of Middlemarch have since become hallmarks of the genre, and its impressive production values and sprawling cast (especially Juliet Aubrey as the quietly self-sabotaging Dorothea) helped enthrall viewers in the U.K. The series sparked a wave of interest in all things Victorian and revealed an audience eager for literary miniseries—which led to several of the other 1990s adaptations on this list.
Jane Eyre (1997): Anyone in search of exacting fidelity regarding Charlotte Brontë’s definitive character study should turn to the 1983 series, in which an entire episode is spent in Lowood and Timothy Dalton pretends not to be handsome. A&E’s 1997 outing is short on time and low on budget: Scenes fade awkwardly to make room for commercial breaks, and whole subplots—like Jane’s journey to settle accounts with dying Aunt Reed—happen entirely offscreen. But this also means an Eyre tightly focused on its leads (Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton), who nail crucial and difficult characterizations of the plucky, introspective governess and the asshole who loves her. Hinds’ Rochester is every inch the abusive blowhard who manipulates Jane for his amusement, and a viewer has zero trouble believing he would stash a wife in the attic. It’s no wonder Morton’s Jane—whose steely gaze barely disguises her temper—often seems intrigued by him despite her better instincts. Backed by a score overwrought enough to make Brontë proud, these two duke it out for the best-earned codependent happy ending of the 19th century.
The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (1996): Of all the Brontë novels, this might be the trickiest to adapt. Its prickly heroine, Helen Graham, is the most determinedly feminist Brontë heroine, feet planted firmly in a suffragette future: disregarding unfair laws, resenting men’s legal control, and shunning the behind-the-scenes support network of women. But she lacks the relatability of plucky Jane Eyre—Helen’s the wife that’s been locked in the attic. And Wildfell Hall’s plot, which parallels a slowly unspooling tale of marital abuse with a slowly unspooling tale of Helen being harangued to open up in her new life, could feel stagnant on the screen. Instead, director Mike Barker imbues the frame with the cool illumination of a Vermeer, and shows Helen as a natural fit among the scrub trees that have twisted and toughened to survive. There’s even the occasional grace note of uncomfortable sensuality, as Toby Stephens’ Gilbert becomes romantically entitled about her in a way the series suggests makes him a questionable improvement on the last guy. It’s a largely uncompromising adaptation of an uncompromising novel.
Tess Of The D’Urbervilles (1998): This is Thomas Hardy’s bleakest story, which is saying something. Tess Durbeyfield’s futile attempts to escape a world of men—their appetites, their rules, their economic control, their judgments—make her a feminist martyr whose sufferings could be impossible to watch (as in the 2008 version where Gemma Arterton is never allowed to stop crying). But Justine Waddell gives Tess a convincing backbone, and Jason Flemyng’s Alec comes across in flashes of sympathy that make him more like Angel (Oliver Milburn) than most adaptations admit. The misty despair of the potato farm, the rolling horizons of the empty hills, the handheld urgency whenever Tess attempts to flee bad situations in the futile hope of better—it all inverts the bucolic claustrophobia of some other Victorian work. Instead, this is a world endlessly wide and unrelentingly disappointing, and an adaptation that understands too well that Tess only has one way out of it.
Bleak House (2005): This title is a bold statement in a world where Thomas Hardy was actively writing, but Dickens sells it. Bleak House cuts a swath through the strata of English society, united by a court case making its way through a newly Victorian justice system (a case that made such an impression it helped spur public outcry for legal reform). But both this and the various MacGuffins that leap into view are merely the frame Andrew Davies builds for a 15-episode extravaganza of Victorian chaos at every scale. It’s a veritable playground for the cast of dozens, though there are expected standouts in a cut-glass Gillian Anderson and a flinty Charles Dance, who occupy the moral shadows that are the most resonant part of any Dickens story. (That said, Anna Maxwell Martin seamlessly inhabits a rare Dickens ingenue with some backbone.) Though the caprices of society and personality are present here with Dickens’ signature kitchen-sink density edging into camp, the miniseries’ edge is enough to illuminate a world where the pox isn’t half as dangerous as a trial.
Return To Cranford (2009): This series—the only sequel on the list—follows the equally charming Cranford. Both series draw on some of the same Elizabeth Gaskell novellas to flesh out the eponymous village through which so many fates intertwine. However, Return To Cranford is more fixed on a signature Victorian concern: the voracious nature of technological change and the social upheaval that follows. It’s in many ways a quieter, more tenderhearted look at life than most on this list, but in the hands of Judi Dench and company, it also means train rides that read like a corseted Marx Brothers sketch and priceless facial expressions about the scandalous intimacy of the waltz. There’s a mile-wide streak of nostalgia for a Cranford irrevocably slipping away, acres of woodland given over to the railroad and young couples making their way in an economy that’s inventing itself and getting bigger every day. But in every sidelong look and awkward pause, Return To Cranford reminds us that the stakes don’t have to be epic to be affectingly real.
Wuthering Heights (1998): Emily Brontë was the most openly Gothic of the sisters whose work came to define the Romantic era. Wuthering Heights, though often described as a dark love story, is actually a two-person horror story that catches a generation of innocent parties in its terrifying wake—which makes it awfully tricky to adapt, since a successful one will have to acknowledge their mutual monstrousness, and most versions softball Cathy. The 1998 miniseries is no exception; Orla Brady’s Cathy is mildly determined rather than poisonous. But Robert Cavanah is as cruel a Heathcliff as the small screen’s ever seen; he’s more bombastic than Tom Hardy’s quietly sinister sociopath in the 2009 iteration, but Cavanah’s right at home in a wholeheartedly Gothic take. (Heathcliff digging up Cathy’s coffin to embrace her bones is a succinct encapsulation of the entire novel.) It’s not perfect—the dated effects mark this as distinctly ’90s, and Polly Hemingway isn’t as compelling a Nelly as she could be. But this version comes closer than most to capturing the psychological sinkhole at the novel’s center.
The Way We Live Now (2001): This Andrew Davies-scripted miniseries puts the controversial speculator Melmotte smack in the middle of the action, centering almost all of Anthony Trollope’s themes at once: questionable business practices in an increasingly industrial world, the dissolution and bigotry of the upper classes, anti-Semitism, the farce of politics, the corruption of the gentry, and the grinding wheels of public opinion. Whether he’s a complicated antihero or a caricature not even David Suchet could save is one of the questions the miniseries asks; alongside an electric performance from Shirley Henderson as his wildly stubborn daughter, it’s to the credit of a skilled cast that so few other characters feel milquetoast by comparison. And it follows the fortunes of dozens—impoverished gentry, rising entrepreneurs, solidly middle-class journalists, women who may or may not deserve better than they get—with production values that neatly establish the concentric circles of privilege. The Way We Live Now offers a gleefully vicious portrait of its age, and unlike some of the novels or adaptations somewhat suspended in time, it suggests a few things about broken systems that hold pointedly true today.
Here are 10 more for extra credit:
Pride And Prejudice (1995): If the list had allowed for more than one per author, Pride And Prejudice would be on the docket. It’s a quintessential example of the modern period piece, from Andrew Davies to the dreamboat lead who goes on to movie stardom. Though its comic energy can feel slightly farcical (overencouraged by the score), it’s hard to find another series as openly delightful. (For something more subdued, try the 1980 iteration, in which Darcy’s too stiff but the piano doesn’t follow you around quite so single-mindedly. Everything’s a trade-off.)
North And South (2004): An overt story of shifting economies and the class upheaval that accompanied them, North And South portrays a gritty mill town with capitalist gusto and chilling shots of cotton fluff floating in the air like a death sentence. Though the depth of Gaskell’s heroine is somewhat lost in translation, the series demonstrates the increasingly cinematic treatment of television for which the BBC has become known.
A Christmas Carol (1984): A definitive adaptation of Dickens’ idea of a holiday special, with George C. Scott huffing, puffing, crying, and laughing his way through Ebenezer Scrooge’s night before Christmas. The visuals have become synonymous with the story itself (The Ghost Of Christmas Present opening his robe to reveal the ragged children creeped out an entire generation).
Ivanhoe (1997): Sir Walter Scott’s Neo-medieval epic of Saxon honor among Norman rule heralded a widespread revival of all things Pre-Raphealite in art and design (as well as some Robin Hood fanfiction). Deborah Cook’s screenplay immerses the audience in the minutiae of 12th-century life, and the camera moves equally voraciously across granite forts and granite-faced Ciaran Hinds.
The Woman In White (1997): Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel—part mystery, part high Gothic—gets a loving treatment at the hands of director Tim Fywell, who has fun with the mustache-twirling plot twists in this pro-caper while still keenly evoking the social strictures that drive people to crime and the terror of the Victorian asylum.
“Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde” (1955): Robert Louis Stevenson’s science-fiction morality tale of respectable gentleman hypocrites is ripe for anything over-the-top. But in Gore Vidal’s adaptation, which aired live on CBS’s Climax! series, the staged quality works in its favor, creating a suitably pulpy Hyde for a new age.
The Mayor Of Casterbridge (2003): Ciaran Hinds, Jodhi May, and James Purefoy fulfill their contractual obligation to appear in a period piece in this study of a man whose greed and treatment of family as business feel like a warning from Thomas Hardy to those buying too wholeheartedly into the promise of the Victorian dream.
The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1988): The quintessential of quintessentials, this evergreen Sherlock Holmes mystery was a season finale for the Granada series starring the iconic Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Watson. The TV movie special makes the most of both an eerie Dartmoor and the rapport that had already come to define this small-screen partnership.
Wives And Daughters (1999): Gaskell’s ability to create heartbreak with almost no forward motion is on full display here, as the insecure nouveau riche compete with the local gentry and treat nobility like movie stars—except the morally upright heroine, of course. The production offers all the charms of home, and its ensemble perfectly captures stomach-churning family strain, no matter what family is involved.
The Forsyte Saga (1967): This is admittedly a cheat: Published in 1922, John Galsworthy’s series of novels sail far past this timeline. But it’s the sort of work—both quietly disgusted and fascinated by an age not yet bygone—that can only be written a generation out of the thing itself. And the 1967 serial it inspired is a stagey but exhaustively detailed 26-parter that was a U.K. smash hit, inspiring near-instant syndication to meet audience demand across channels, and sowing the seeds of many period pieces to come.