Cranford: when the movie changes the book, and it works

image from the publicity stills put out by betteridge







When the mini-series Cranford was first shown on TV, I avoided it.

I couldn’t believe that anyone could get a screenplay out of that quiet not-really-a-novel without distorting it horribly. After all, it was about the small doings of a handful of aging widows and spinsters, more focused on the internal landscape than the external. How could any filmmaker stay true to that?

When I discovered that the producers and writer on this project were all women—and one of the players was Judi Dench—and that this production team had done Wives and Daughters—I had to check it out.

Within the first few minutes, I discovered how they’d found a plot for Gaskell’s not-a-novel: Cranford was actually a skillful weaving of three of Gaskell’s novellas. It works because all three novellas shared characteristics. One of them, “Mr Harrison’s Confessions,” was a kind of proto-Cranford, which itself was written in segments over time, from very early in her career to later.

The first Cranford story was her response to an invitation from Charles Dickens to write for his new magazine aimed at the family market. He was pleased enough to function as patron to this vivid, family-oriented new voice in the literary world—until she began venturing beyond the ladylike domestic sphere he thought proper for lady writers.

Wife of a pastor, she was in essence an unpaid social worker, deeply concerned about the miseries of the poor. Against Dickens’ advice, and his mandates as editor, her stories began to focus on those forced to live in poison-choked industrial towns, the horrors of illegitimacy and girls “betrayed” etc. Gaskell wanted to write human business, though her strongest writing is from the female POV.

Cranford is good because of Gaskell’s remarkable eye for distinct, character and emotion-revealing detail. Here is a telling line:

I will answer for it, the last gigot, the last tight and scanty petticoat in wear in England, was seen in Cranford–and seen without a smile.

That line says so much, evoking the genteel poverty of inhabitants of a poor town, wherein dignity is about all they have left. But the reader needs to know a gigot is a huge puffy sleeve (popular just after the Regency) and the scant and tight petticoats date back to the Regency period, when the widows and spinsters in the story were young, sprightly things perhaps damping those petticoats so their sprig muslin tube-gowns would show their youthful shape. The nice thing about film is that we can see these details at a glance—though viewers might not catch quite all the context.

Gaskell’s genius was in managing to capture real emotion and how people express it. Not just that, but how real emotion can change in a heartbeat—irritation becomes compassion, sadness shared laughter—just like in real life, rather the characters tromping through the book with a sustained attitude representing some aspect of social commentary.

This film version has all the best scenes of the written Cranford and the acting is excellent. The woman who plays Miss Jenkyns is brilliant in how she manages to convey the character’s gravitas when she’s being the most prickly over ridiculous things, like insisting that each woman sit alone in her room to consume her orange, as there is no way to eat it with proper delicacy. Or jumping up to change the candles so that they give the impression of two candles burning—which is genteel—while only one burns at a time, which is saving.

But even deeper than that, she and the other old women’s faces reflect their own attitudes toward relations with men; in one scene the women are together, discussing the new young doctor, and the camera stays with them just long enough for you to perceive who’s been longing for a man, who knows the touch of a man and misses it, and who is complete in herself, who never had any interest whatsoever in that side of life. When Miss Jenkyns murmurs, “A man in the house is so in the way,” she doesn’t say it scoldingly, or angrily, or stuffily, just an observation: you not only picture her house being organized for a woman’s life, but there’s also a reminder that in those days, whenever a man entered a scene, he took precedence as a matter of course.

My favorite scene from the book is also in the film, though perhaps the film version is doesn’t resonate quite as deeply as the written version. I don’t think it could, as so much of the book’s power is conveyed through internal realizations, sorrow at the passage not just of time but of a way of life as Miss Matty and the narrator sit looking through Miss Matty’s parents’ letters when they were young marrieds. The two women comment on the distinctive style of the late 1700s, and Miss Matty believes that the letters ought to be burned, as there is no one to come after them to care. There are so many exquisite touches that illuminate the styles of the two periods—not just fashion but ways of seeing the world. Each detail intensifies the effect.

Anyway, I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Victoriana.




Cranford: when the movie changes the book, and it works — 21 Comments

    • Oh, I think you would deeply appreciate this one. The little details so exquisite. And little bits of humor–the women having bought a new rug, stitching together newsprint and leaping up to move it through the day, so that the sun won’t cause the rug to fade.

  1. I listened to the audiobook of Cranford but haven’t read the novels or the seen the miniseries. I have friends who loved it, though. Just as I discovered Colin Firth/P&P miniseries many years behind these friends, it appears I must finally check out Cranford!

  2. Loved Cranford both book and miniseries. The BBC usually does these things so well. Of course they have a deep well of extraordinary actors to draw from.
    By the way there’s no link on your Sartorias blog. On purpose?

    • Yes there is–I had to go friendslock for a few days, in hopes of stemming the cataract of spam. (It was up to like fifty every few hours, and then one came through that had some kind of virus attached.)

  3. As a grad student I knew of Cranford but never saw a copy until one day browsing during lunch hour a used book store table across from the publisher where I worked. There was an illustrated, big book edition, with paper covers! I snapped it up, and have it still.

    What is also interesting and show up so quickly to anyone who loves Middlemarch, is the coming of the railway in Cranford. This was a huge matter in the lives of Britons of the era(s).

    I liked the two mini series very much — a lot more than Larkrise, which, of course is a different era, but slides around so much chronology on screen you never quite know which era it is. The first two season of Larkrise were better, it seems to me. Cranford’s screen adaptation is more faithful, it seems to me than the Larkrise to Candleford adaptation.

    Love, C.

  4. Aaa! I -sucessfully- found this novel on Project Gutenberg, and I loaded it onto my Ipad! I don’t know how Gaskell would have felt about this, but I am sure Dickens would be proud!!

  5. There’s only one other person I know who can recommend to me a book I would term “a classic” and leave me actually interested in reading it. But every time you talk about a classic I leave wanting to go find and read it. And so far, I’ve liked the ones I’ve read.

    It might have something to do with having the right expectations. I like how you give examples of scenes that kind of exemplify the whole book.

  6. Oh, I loved the BBC Wives and Daughters, so I’ll definitely look for this. Love what you say about the older women’s various reactions as they discuss the doctor.

  7. Oh, yes! I so enjoyed this series. I loved the book and am so grateful that you recommended it way back when. (I intended to share it with Jon as a family read-aloud and regret that I never got a chance.)

    Your post reminds me that I need to reread the book and re-watch the video. (I keep forgetting that I can get stuff like this as an e-book when our local library doesn’t have it!)

    So sorry to hear about the spam problem.


    • You should be able to see the posts now–there’s one with a link to BBC’s 90 years that’s pretty nifty. Re Cranford, I just found out they made a second one, and have ordered it from Netflix.

  8. I loved Gaskell’s North and South and found it far superior to Dickens’ Hard Times, which is on the same topic. I haven’t read Cranford though nor seen the TV series. (Husband hates costume drama, unfortunately, and though I record things I want to watch that he doesn’t, it’s too easy to stockpile programmes that I never find the time to watch, so I only record particular favourites.)

    I’m finding it difficult to like a lot of new fantasy novels at the moment, so perhaps delving into the classics might make a change? Off to Project Gutenberg, methinks, to download some Gaskell. 🙂

  9. I saw the minseries first which made want to read the books. I didn’t realize it was a collection of novellas so I found the reading a little hard going. Ms. Gaskells stories reminded me of another collection of stories by an American author. “Friendly Persuasion” and “Execpt for Me” and Thee by Jessamyn West are a collection of stories about Indiana Quakers and the changes the Civil War brought to them. The movie with Gary Cooper is good as they too found the weave in the stories.
    Happy read