Published serially as a “sensation novel” in 1859, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White has everything a discerning TV viewer in 2018 could want: moody, Gothic settings that only get moodier and gothier as the story progresses; headstrong women who set themselves firmly against the entitlement of the men, vicious and disinterested alike, who might be instruments of their devastation; a mystery that is as much about class and power as it is about a dead girl. Doppelgängers. It even (centrally!) has doppelgängers—a.k.a, television’s (and Paste’s) favorite excuse to pull out the old “actors playing their own twin” trope.
The almost spooky small-screen adaptability of Collins’ proto-mystery novel goes even deeper, though. It goes so deep, in fact, that one would be forgiven for wondering if Collins might not have been a time-traveler all along, stuck in Victorian England with nothing but the dream of an industry yet unborn to keep him muddling through. On the meta level, the collection of voiceover-ready “investigative notes” of which its uncommon narration is comprised functions as a series of framing devices that, as one limited-perspective account breaks off and passes the torch to another, weave anxiety and dread into even the simplest domestic scenes. On the specific and improbably camera-ready level, it has a complicated human-shaped shell game playing out across the English countryside, a woman donning her darkest cloak and petticoats to scramble across roof tiles in the rain, at midnight, to spy on the deadly plots being hatched behind her back, and a catastrophic fire in a dilapidated parish church that sees one protagonist rise to hero by banging together a battering ram to break down the vestry doors.
It is, in short, the thrilling feminist mystery costume drama that fans of any one of those things might, here in the ragged fall of 2018, be grateful to snuggle up in front of at the end of each bruising week.
Or at least, it should be. But while the sharply chilling preview of the the newest take on Collins’ classic, produced by the BBC and set to premiere Sunday on PBS, seemed to indicate an understanding of the novel’s on-screen potential, any hope that understanding might prevail falls apart the moment it becomes clear that condensing the 700-page brick into a tight five hours meant turning Collins’ carefully arranged “investigative notes” into a series of flash-forward interviews, conducted after the [spoiler] by a hired scrivener invented from whole cloth for just this purpose. And when I say [spoiler] I mean, the show spoils the book’s first central mystery immediately. Like, in the trailer immediately.
The fact of Laura Fairlie’s suspicious death (sorry! blame the BBC!) is not the only thing spoiled by the forcible insertion of scrivener Erasmus Nash (Art Malik) into the narrative—his presence also neutralizes the anxiety and dread Collins built organically with the shifting, singular frames of his original narrative structure, thus forcing the series to find ways of regaining that dread through heavy-handed camera work and sound design. It also directly contradicts, from the outset, the conclusion that romantic hero Walter Hartright draws upon completing the investigation, without the help of any paid outside agent, about the valedictory benefits of his own relative poverty. And whatever the flash-forwards of the miniseries’ premiere might indicate, Walter’s survival is not a spoiler—it is the one established fact of the book’s original narrative, of which he is the fictional editor. Just one more element of Collins’ original, lost to the bulldozing whims of careless adaptation.
To go into detail about the absurd counterproductivity of every single choice this adaptation makes would take as much time as just sending you off to watch the premiere for yourself—after the first episode, my notes devolved into a cascade of WHY???s interspersed with whole paragraphs indignantly cut and pasted from an ebook copy of The Woman in White I checked out solely for that purpose—but for the sake of this review, it’s enough for you to know that nearly every change made by this production, from the substantial (the timeline of Walter’s involvement with Anne, Laura and Marian; every element of Count Fosco’s character, down to his little white mice) to the inane (the calendar date of Laura’s wedding; the deletion of Walter’s sister) forces the story’s plot, characters, and themes into contortions that Wilkie Collins would barely recognize.
Of course, not everyone tuning in to The Woman in White will have read the novel recently, or at all. For all of you in that position, or for those of you who coudl care less about the precision of book-to-screen adaptations, as long as the final product is entertaining, this adaptation will certainly be easier to enjoy—especially for those who watch PBS’ period dramas mainly for the charming costumes and soothing accents.
But even without making comparison the thief of joy, The Woman in White doesn’t sufficiently rise to the occasion. While the acting, especially from Ben Hardy, Jessie Buckley, and Olivia Vinall as the central trio of Walter, Marian and Laura/Anne, is strong, the series has palpable difficulty with both tone and pace. Much of the menace of Laura and Marian’s situation arises naturally from the brittle civility of Victorian mores, and thus benefits from long stretches of apparent tranquility. This adaptation doesn’t seem to trust itself to execute that contradiction on screen, and so instead undercuts the entire production with a creaking, gloomful score that persists from start to finish. Similarly, the series doesn’t seem to trust the audience to be clever enough to pick up on social or narrative cues, and so seeds the script with the most patronizingly unsubtle exposition of what would almost always be better off shown, which ends up forcing the story to leap gracelessly from one major plot point to the next just to make it to the end in time.
Most critically, this adaptation doesn’t trust anyone—not itself, not the cast, not us in the audience—to understand that men can, as Marian Halcombe so affectingly stresses in that opening clip, crush women without that crushing necessarily having a sexual element. The Woman in White is not about men exerting sexual control over women. It is about money and class and the deadly danger in losing one or the other, and it is about how powerless women are to control their own lives, even with money and class, in a patriarchal society. That might include sexual dynamics, and is certainly a part of why rape culture exists, but it is not what this particular story is about. It is, in fact, explicitly not about this, as the book establishes Laura’s as a sexless marriage, and Fosco’s obsession with Marian as heartfelt respect for her robust intellect. But this adaptation can’t seem to take Collins at his word, and so forces sexual violence and the threat of sexual violence onto both Laura and Marian.
In the end, an adaptation tells you as much about the inner landscape of those adapting it as anything else: This is how they read the original. The changes they made reflect their interpretation, accurate or not. And for the team adapting The Woman in White for the BBC this time around, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, this was the invisible subtext they couldn’t shake. There are implications in this particular brand of willfulness—#MeToo can’t progress if we can’t open our imaginations to less explicitly sexual vectors of gendered power—but that discussion is for another time.
For now, watch The Woman in White for yourself and draw your own conclusions. Or don’t. Or watch the 1948 film when it airs on TCM on October 25. Or just read the book, and trust Collins’ authorial instincts where the BBC couldn’t! The 27-hour long Naxos audio edition was how I did it, and their interpretations were terrific, but Tantor has a version with my personal favorite Simon Prebble among the voice cast, so I imagine that would be a good choice, also.
The Woman in White premieres Sunday, Oct. 21 at 10 p.m. on PBS.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.