TV ADAPTORS' MASSIVE TASK - TO CONDENSE ONE-MILLION-WORD CLARISSA TO THREE HOURS
How do you compress the longest novel ever written in English into just three TV episodes? Very carefully. And how did the BBC accomplish this Herculean task? Very well, apparently.
British author Samuel Richardson's one-million-word Clarissa, written in 1747-48, was boiled down to three 60-minute episodes for TV. By contrast, Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, with about one-tenth the number of words, was allotted 14 hour-long parts when adapted as the acclaimed The Jewel in the Crown.
Co-adaptors David Nokes and Janet Barron, both specialists in 18th century English literature, "have burrowed beneath the novel's wordiness", a British critic wrote, "and laid bare the central drama - the love-hate relationship between Clarissa Harlowe, virtuous daughter of an acquisitive family, and Robert Lovelace, the lordly libertine who courts, abducts and finally rapes her."
Starring newcomer Saskia Wickham as the heroine and Sean Bean as Lovelace, Clarissa airs on Mobil-funded Masterpiece Theatre Sundays at 9 PM (ET) beginning April 5  nationally on PBS. Also starring are Diana Quick and Cathryn Harrison.
Even though Richardson's huge novel is seldom read today, interest in it has recently revived. An operatic version was staged last year and a new literary study brought Clarissa back onto student reading lists.
Most important, Nokes believes, is Richardson's affinity with modern feminism. "In the same way that Tom Jones (the film based on Henry Fielding's 18th century novel) expressed the light-hearted sexuality of the early 1960's," he says, "we felt Clarissa would be appropriate for the 1990's - both from a feminist perspective and in this AIDS era of sexual anxiety."
Aside from trimming so drastically, chief among the challenges confronting the adaptors was the novel's style. Richardson told the story entirely in letters the principal characters write to one another - what's called an epistolary novel. Emphasizing that the letters might have slowed the TV pace to a crawl, a British critic wrote, the adaptation is "notably magnificent on the matter of dramatic pace."
Nokes and Ms. Barron dispense with most of the letters unless they're essential to the plot. "You can't have too many of them," says Nokes, "or you would get confused. You have to be able to follow what happened to each letter - when does it get delivered, who reads it, which piece of action does it describe."
Next challenge for the co-adaptors of the Mobil Masterpiece Theatre presentation was to make Clarissa and Lovelace acceptable to contemporary TV viewers. Clarissa was more difficult, says Ms. Barron, "because most 20th century women would not put up with the way Lovelace pressurizes his beloved. A modern woman would just walk out."
But, she adds, the story "is not a straight conflict between good and evil. It's about sexual desire and the inability to satisfy that within the social framework." Which brings up the third big challenge - how to handle the rape scene.
Richardson doesn't describe the rape. He has Lovelace simply write a letter to a friend saying, "The affair is over. Clarissa lives." And that's where Richardson left a long pause in his novel - for a long period, there's no mention of Clarissa at all.
"We decided we had to show it," Ms. Barron says. "You just can't leave it out, and although Clarissa is drugged and her mind is disordered, she does say no."
Most critics cited the novel's contemporary attitude for the TV version's success last winter in England. "Clarissa is a modern woman who rejects her mother's submissive attitude and breaks out of the doll's house," one critic wrote. "Lovelace is not so much a lusty, charming swashbuckler but a chauvinist sexual psychopath."
Another critic, obviously a woman, quoted Clarissa as asking her parents, "Have I no duty to myself?" And the critic added, "Sister, put it there!"
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