On Monday night, American viewers will see the first installment of the “sexed up” BBC adaptation of War and Peace, which has shocked (and titillated) viewers abroad with its cast of good-looking young actors in occasionally over-scanty costumes. Most shocking of all is an incest scene, one that takes themes Tolstoy only hinted at and makes them quite explicit, scandalizing purists, and probably intriguing Game of Thrones-hardened audiences.
Fear not, fellow period drama aficionados: we are in the hands of a maestro. The screenwriter for this adaptation, British veteran Andrew Davies, has a lengthy resumé, and his first and finest specialty is taking massive 19th-century novels and condensing them into detailed, thorough, miniseries adaptations. Doorstop-size tomes like Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, even Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished Wives and Daughters: all have become miniseries sensations thanks to Davies’ shrewd ability to mine lengthy books for their most important characters, scenes and conversations. All of the aforementioned adaptations (I’ve seen them all and read all the source material) astound me, given how complete and precise they tend to feel while also being fresh and gripping on their own.
It’s a true talent which may get less attention than Davies’ his secondary skill: adding sexual heat to said adaptations, by taking subtext and making it very, very much text. He’s the creator of the original House of Cards series, and the Bridget Jones screenwriter — and even more than being known for the contemporary treats he’s penned, Davies is the man who created Wet Shirt Darcy.
Let’s refresh your memories about that iconic scene, which — as always with Davies — occurred in the middle of the otherwise faithful and detailed adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the miniseries that is generally considered closest to canon by fans.
In the book, Mr. Darcy has returned a day early to his Pemberley estate and has no idea that his love interest Lizzy Bennet is sneaking a tour of the grounds, having been assured of the master’s absence. Here’s where Davies improvised: what more natural thing for said master to do upon return than take a little plunge in a pond on his extensive property? Then, shirt soaking and clinging to his body, he strides towards the house, where he bumps into Lizzy.
In addition to jumpstarting a contemporary resurgence of the female gaze, this scene — and others Davies added of Darcy bathing and fencing, trying to get Lizzy Bennet off his mind — also humanized Austen’s hero, showing that outside of social situations, where he is formal and arrogant, he has a passionate, natural side. And he has the hots for Elizabeth.
His running into Lizzy while in a compromised position thus flows beautifully from the plot itself. Until this scene, she has been the primary object of both his scorn and lust. Yet at this very moment, she is beginning to shift the gaze, to look carefully at him from a distance and reconsider what kind of person he is: first she examines his house, then she studies his portrait, and then, Austen notes, unexpectedly gazes at the man himself. By literally stripping Darcy down, Davies doesn’t just make the adaptation more humorous and sexy, he also dramatizes a figurative moment in Austen’s plot, the moment Lizzy begins to truly see her future husband without prejudice.
We all know the story from there: so successful was Davies’ slight tweak of Darcy’s storyline that the press coined the term “Darcymania.” From there, Colin Firth’s career was jump-started, and the rest is history. After a decade, Davies repeated the “sex up Austen” gambit in two other fairly well-received adaptations. In 2008’s miniseries of Sense and Sensibility, instead of pond-diving Darcy we got wood-chopping Edward Ferrars, played by Dan Stevens of soon-to-be Downton Abbey fame.
Edward, unlike Darcy, is directly repressed. He’s engaged secretly to Lucy Steele, but has fallen in love with Elinor Dashwood. Naturally, he gets out his frustration by stalking out into the rain and going ham on the woodpile. It just so happens that his shirt gets wet, too. Keeping things balanced between the genders, Davies ensures that Edward’s love interest Elinor Dashwood — who, like Edward, is exceedingly proper in company — also contends with her feelings about family’s troubles by beating carpets most vigorously.
But what is most notable, and scandalous, about Davies’ Sense and Sensibility 2008 is the opening scene, which puts on the screen something Austen only alludes to: the cad Mr. Willoughby’s seduction of young Eliza, Colonel Brandon’s ward. There is nudity, and murmuring, and it’s all very brief — if you tuned in a few minutes late you missed it — but it was enough to get people talking about the adaptation, which yet again was otherwise a somber, straightforward and melancholy take on Austen’s novel. A spoonful of seduction makes Austen’s medicine go down.
And in the Northanger Abbey adaptation that arrived around the same time, Davies’ hand in the script was obvious: in this version, young Catherine Morland’s lurid fantasies are moved from the pages of the gothic novels she’s reading right onto the screen, and enacted:
As with Mr. Darcy, there are bathtubs involved.
This adaptation also dramatizes one of Austen’s implied or hinted-at seduction scenes that never actually occurs, with a young Cary Mulligan getting dressed after an assignation and naively thinking the surrender of her virtue means she’s engaged to be married. Ah, the folly of youth.
But away from Austen, Davies doesn’t always sex up his screenplays. His much-acclaimed adaptations of Dickens behemoths like Little Dorrit and Bleak House are less meddled-with; they tend to up the creep factor and grotesquerie rather than the romance and seduction. That’s partly because Dickens is far less subtle than Austen, with a lot less sublimated sexual passion in his novels (the proto-Freudian treasure trove Great Expectations being an exception ) — in fact, most of his love affairs are treacly and chaste.
From my perspective as a fan, Davies’ scripts expertly capture longing and unrequited passion, and tend to be less interested in happy endings and consummation (like Austen herself, who tied things up in such a neat way as to draw attention to the haste of her conclusions). He’s also been known to sex down some of his adaptations — I have a soft spot for his hilarious adaptation of the pornographic memoirs of “lady of pleasure” Fanny Hill, rendered for the screen with such sly wit that it’s almost PG-13 (although not quite). And strangely, Davies’ otherwise by-the-book adaptation of Middlemarch (featuring a very brooding young Rufus Sewell) moves George Elliot’s climactic love scene from where its author put it in a library, with kissing and thunder and rain in the distance, to a genteel garden in sunlight. It’s blasphemous, my least favorite Davies-related moment.
Of course the fact that this angers me more than any carpet-beating or bathtub fantasies appended to Austen’s text shows that I, like many modern viewers, am more willing to forgive an excess of flesh, clingy garments and innuendo made manifest in my period drama than I am inclined to forgive an excess of sunshine and chastity. No doubt Davies has figured that out, and our reward will be the turgid War and Peace we deserve.