Here’s a truth universally acknowledged: Television and the Victorian novel are two wholly different media. Make as many comparisons as you will, but the 19th-century English novel will never experience any kind of seamless transition into the world of serial television. The incentives of the two forms are so incongruous, not to mention the contrast in creative and productive conditions that goes into generating them. When Laura Miller emphatically told us that “The Wire is NOT like Dickens,” she made many good points — an obvious one being that if one wished to reference a canonical novelist in lofty conversation about The Wire, Dickens would be a safe bet. But as Miller went on to state: Dickens wrote prose narrative on paper, and The Wire is a visual drama. It’s a good place to start as any if we’re looking to tease out the distinctions between the two.
Still, it won’t stop television (or film, for that matter) from continuing to draw on written stories. Alfred Hitchcock, that undisputed master of cinema, took from novelists such as Patrick Hamilton, Patricia Highsmith, and Dorothy Sayers for his film and television work alike. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, however, focused on a different story per episode, while the idea behind The Wire-versus-Dickens comparison is that such serial storytelling has the power to hook the viewer time and time again.
Joe Wright’s promising Anna Karenina premiered last week, and I’m still waiting to see what violence McGehee and Siegel have done to What Maisie Knew. (Will we ever know? Really though — when is this film premiering?) The former capitalizes on the period piece genre, while the latter pushes against its conventions by modernizing James’ story. This is often what happens in television as well — straight BBC period dramas such as Great Expectations and The Way We Were; or Gossip Girl, originally advertised as Edith Wharton for Modern Teens. (More specifically, the modern teen’s Age of Innocence, published in 1920, which makes it technically not at all a Victorian novel, but details! Details are what will get you when you’re adapting that novel for TV.) Yes, it can get a bit gimmicky, and judging by Gossip Girl — now in its final season — the grandeur and melodrama of old New York can only sustain increasingly wild plotlines for so long.
Here are some other Victorian (and Victorian-adjacent) novels that might make good television shows — not because they are filled with psychological realism that will translate into fodder for rich character work, but because they contain plots still and always rivetingly human. For execution, though, it’s probably still best to follow the BBC model: shorter seasons before it tends toward the gimmicky.
Emma (1815), Jane Austen
Considering the amount of hours people spend rewatching Clueless, it might as well be a television show. Austen’s novel about its eponymous matchmaker has spurred a number of BBC broadcasts and miniseries (the one starring Romola Garai is quite good), but what about a longer Wednesday night drama? Maybe on ABC, or even ABC Family? It would do well along the lines of Bunheads — balancing the slightly more insidious premise of shows such as Pretty Little Liars and Revenge. As a female lead, Emma is presumptuous and imprudent with her so-called talents, which lead to a series of set-ups, followed by missteps. And, yes, Emma finds love herself too — with the long-term, will-they-won’t-they subject of her initially platonic affections nonetheless.