As part of my watching through the 1001 TV Shows list with the hub I have been re-watching a number of shows that he has not seen. I’ve already covered the story of Bleak House when I read the book a few years ago – so these will be a few brief words about the adaptation.
Unlike my husband, I am a fan of the BBC bonnet drama. I make sure to re-watch Pride and Prejudice every few years around Easter and Bleak House tends to come on in the run up to Christmas. I’m not sure why I associate this show with Christmas other than the fact that I originally watched this in the gap between Boxing Day and New Year in 2005.
With this watching of Bleak House I might be getting close to double digits and yet it is still able to break my heart time and time again. The book, being so long, meant that there was a lot that could be streamlined in order to bring it to the television. This means that what is left in the eight hours of this miniseries is the best and most essential parts of an excellent book.
Aside from the source material there are two main things that help to elevate Bleak House above other Dickens adaptations. Firstly, there is the huge cast of unique characters who have all been excellently cast. Seeing this 12-13 years after the initial broadcast has given me a chance to look back on some names (like Carey Mulligan and Anna Maxwell Martin) who have since been able to forge strong careers.
Alongside Anna Maxwell Martin’s amazing turn as Esther you also have a then-career best performance from Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, which helped to open up a whole new set of roles in her subsequent career. Then there’s Charles Dance as the devilish Tulkinghorn and Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce (aka my literary crush) who round out the best of the starring roles. There are also a number of smaller roles that leave huge impacts thanks to actors like Sheila Hancock, Lilo Baur, Johnny Vegas and Phil Davis.
The cast is one thing, but the way that the creators eschewed traditional drama norms by having these as half hour episodes with regular cliffhangers really makes Bleak House work as binge-worthy television. In-keeping with their playing with our expectation of a Dickens adaptation – Bleak House uses modern editing and transitions to help this feel more alive than I have ever seen Dickens being portrayed.
Would Dickens approve of this adaptation? It’s impossible to know, but Bleak House is one of those adaptations that stands as one of the best ever produced, as well as one that helped make this tome of a book that much easier to teach.