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Sex and Sensibility: Are ‘Spiced Up’ Adaptations really that progressive?

Pulses were sent racing in 1995 when Andrew Davies’ television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice saw Mr. Darcy, played by a fresh-faced Colin Firth, emerge sopping wet from a lake in a translucent white shirt that barely clung to his torso. This might have been the moment that changed the future of costume dramas, which have become considerably racier over the years. According to screenwriter Davies, in response to backlash from Austen purists, this scene “rerobed, not disrobed, Austen” – foreseeing an increasing trend of risqué period pieces.

Davies has since become renowned for his adaptations of classic novels with slightly raunchy twists. This extends far beyond the works of Jane Austen – his adaptations of works such as Doctor Zhivago and A Room With a View contain sex scenes which are not present in the source material; his 2016 War and Peace mini-series was highly controversial because of a number of nude scenes, as well as the explicit portrayal of an incestuous relationship between Prince Anatole Kuragin and his sister Helène, something only vaguely alluded to in Tolstoy’s original novel. Davies’ upcoming adaptation of Sanditon, Austen’s unfinished final novel, set to air later this year, has already generated considerable buzz due to a scene containing male nudity in the very first episode. At a preview screening, Davies, defended his choice to “sex up” beloved literary works, stating, “I aim to please myself when writing these things, I write something that I would like to watch and I suppose the sexing it up thing comes in fairly naturally.”

This begs the question – do audiences really want to see iconic novels reduced to an hour of “mummy porn” every Sunday night on BBC One? Perhaps the scandal that surrounds new adaptations of such iconic works is exactly what showrunners want. Audiences are certainly scandalised by steamy scenes in these films and series – so perhaps they are only thrown in for consumer value. As much as we hate to admit it, when we think of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice adaptation the first image that comes to mind is Colin Firth in his barely-there wet shirt – unfortunately, more memorable than Alison Steadman’s superb portrayal of Mrs. Bennet, in what is arguably her finest pre-Gavin and Stacey role. Was there really any point to this scene, other than making baby boomers weak at the knees?

However, there’s only so much appeal that can derive from heaving bosoms and slightly parted lips. In the age of Game of Thrones, audiences want to see something that has them gasping and clutching their pearls, and so otherwise formulaic costume dramas have to be adapted in order to accommodate the needs of a modern audience. We can’t ignore the less sanitised aspect of love in period dramas, so perhaps these changes are welcome after all. Some argue that the racy scenes in these adaptations amount to a celebration of sexual autonomy, given that the repression that defined life for the upper and middle classes was deeply rooted in misogyny. We have already been subjected to countless chaste, pristine depictions of love in Regency-era England, and so the time has come for showrunners to try something more daring and progressive. If the source material is “sexed up” in a tasteful way – that is to say, moving away from the male gaze and toward celebrating female sexuality – then these changes should be supported rather than condemned.

Of course, we cannot forget the upcoming television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, set to air next year. Very little is known about the series, other than the fact that it is being produced by Mammoth Screen, the team behind Poldark and Victoria – possibly one of the worst offenders when it comes to “mummy porn”; and that it has been described as a “darker” take on the original novel. The screenplay for the new mini-series will be penned by Nina Raine, who described the original novel as “a very adult book, much less bonnet-y than people assume”, and hopes to “do justice to Austen’s dark intelligence”. A “less bonnet-y” adaptation of Austen might be exactly what we need – a look at the shady side of Captain Wickham as he seduces the fifteen-year-old Lydia Bennet, or the classism which underpins Elizabeth’s interactions with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Unfortunately, given that the Poldark production team have seemingly gone out of their way to show a scantily-clad Aidan Turner at any given moment, it’s possible that this is the direction they will take in Pride and Prejudice, too.

Nevertheless, a sixth television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice might not be the best course of action for producers who want to explore aspects of the source material which are more digestible for modern audiences. Instead of rehashing classic novels for the sake of it, why not take an opportunity to explore the untold stories? While “darker” costume dramas were once seen as groundbreaking and daring, they have since become formulaic, and so perhaps it is time to put this trend to rest. Taking this opportunity to explore, instead, the stories of people of colour or LGBTQ+ individuals, for instance, is surely a far more pressing cause than arbitrarily throwing in gratuitous sex scenes between white, upper class characters. We can look to the recent examples of Gentleman Jack and The Long Song, both of which explored unsavoury aspects of life for marginalised or oppressed communities while, in doing so, championing emancipation in every sense of the word. While serial offenders such as Andrew Davies are certainly taking steps in the right direction – for instance, his racially diverse adaptation of Les Misérables which aired at the start of the year – the time has come to tell new stories instead of “spicing up” old ones.

Featured Image: Anne Reid in Sanditon (ITV)

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