Saturday, June 18, 2011

What Does the Audience of Period Drama Really Want?

Watching I Capture the Castle has got me to thinking about what the audience of period drama really wants ... because it, quite simply, fell flat for me. And I'm trying to figure out why. Why, when it seems to have everything I would want in a period drama, I Capture the Castle did not quite have enough.

I enjoyed it and am glad I watched, but it didn't leave my heart skipping a beat with longing; it didn't catapult me to another place; it didn't make me itch to get away in the evening so I could continue my viewing indulgence. I finished it almost dutifully and left it behind easily.
Yet this movie should, by rights, be a huge favorite with me. For starters, I loved the book! And this adaptation (the one with Romola Garai, the only adaptation I am actually aware of), followed the book quite faithfully. The location was stunning and not only that, was exactly how I had pictured their life in the castle. They all dressed and looked the part. Romola was actually surprisingly appropriate for the lead, Cassandra, a quirky, funny, smart, and attractive though not flashy, girl and I wondered how on earth the stunningly beautiful actress was going to pull that off. But she did! She was really excellent, with her hair all mousy and her clothes cut plain, you could almost believe she could be overlooked in favor of her beautiful sister.

This movie has all the markers: Beautiful strong lead female. Check. Gorgeous setting, preferably in England. Check (set in England, shot in Wales counts as a check).  Beautiful cinematography. Check. Evocative and interesting costumes. Check-minus (really, most of these costumes were forgettable). Introspective/romantic plot. Check. Great sexy male lead...... OK, maybe we've come to the problem.  While I liked Simon and his brother (already forgotten the other guy's name. Not a good sign) and Steven, the salt of the earth hired boy, none of them were interesting enough as leading men. None of the couplings or potential couplings seemed interesting, let alone exciting. Instead of desiring them myself, I wondered why anyone else would want these men.

Truly I don't mean to trash these actors, though. If the men weren't desirable enough, I don't think it was lack of skill or personal appeal on the part of the actors, but rather of weakly developed character. The real blame for the dullness of I Capture the Castle lies with a screen adaptation which feels, well, just boring. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think the movie became a cardboard cutout of the book by following it too faithfully.

Usually when an adaptation of beloved book disappoints me it is due to not following the book. I'm not sure I've ever faulted a movie for following too closely. But, a book has so many advantages for spelling out its driving purpose. It succeeds or fails on a different standard than a movie. A movie isn't the same storytelling mechanism. A movie often has to strike out on its own in order make its purpose clear.  In the book I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith's prose is excellent, and the great charm of our narrator Cassandra just leaps off the page. Despite Romola's lovely presence and acting, she is not given the means in this production to convey how fun and cool and real a character Cassandra is. The movie follows all the main plot points of the book, but it doesn't manage to capture the book's tone and purpose. Because the point of the book is to enjoy the warm charm, observations and personal growth of our main character, it is absolutely essential to any adaptation that this warm charm and growth be done right -- even at the expense of following the plot, setting, characters, or other aspects of the book.

So what is the upshot of this for period drama in general?  Just this: there is some intangible factor that has to be "there" for a period drama to appeal to its audience. We can't simply enjoy the costumes, setting and romance in a vacuum. There has to be a solid underlying story to convey. And the fundamental purpose of that story has to work. If it does, then other things can fall apart and it will be OK, but if it doesn't, all the glorious costumes and settings in the world aren't going to save it. Thus, if, for instance, a story is about the struggles of a monarch, then that personal journey of power and isolation has to take wing. If a story is, at its core, a tale of two lovers at cross purposes unable to find what they want in life until they "find" each other... well, then the rest can fall apart, but that chemistry must be there. And if, as here, the story is about a quirky charming girl and her journey of self discovery, then that piece cannot fall flat. It has to be fully developed. So, despite the film having a few flaws, I could have easily forgiven such things as the poorly developed romantic leads had Cassandra's fascinating journey of life had been spot on.

So there it is. It is about knowing and telling your Story. To succeed in period drama, a production must have a driving sense of underlying purpose about the story being told. If that succeeds, the audience will fall in love. If it doesn't, even a really wonderful castle can help it only so much.

Though, that said, I surely do  want to go visit Manorbier Castle in Wales now! :)

What Does the Audience of  Period Drama Really Want? LostinBritishTV

1 comment:

  1. So true! The book was a favorite in my tween years but when I saw the movie was very disappointed. Despite following the book to the letter, it still didn't capture the magic, humor and slight desperation of the two sisters in the castle.