“Of course they’re guilty. How is it possible for men to cross women time and time again and go unpunished? If men were held accountable they’d hang hour after hour, every day of the year.”
This crucial line from the new adaptation of Wilkie Collins' A Woman in White comes during the first 60 seconds of a visually striking five-part series on PBS. But something about it seems all wrong. Not because it lacks truth but because it does Collins' novel an injustice.
Part of the fun of the story--one of the first and finest mysteries ever written--is deciding for yourself who did what to whom and whether they're guilty or not.
This 2018 adaptation seems to tip the hand in favor of certainty from the get-go. Its avenging-victim theme is so pronounced, I wondered if screenwriter Fiona Seres was more interested in making a case for #MeToo than in remaining true to the taut thread of suspense that makes the book such a thrilling ride
If so, the timing could be all wrong. In the aftermath of the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, 40 percent of those responding to an NPR-Ipsos poll say the movement has gone to far. Although the term "too far" was not defined, several respondents felt unproven accusations and a bandwagon effect could ruin lives and end careers without due process. No surprise that the poll revealed a divide based on party affiliation and gender.
That did not stop a record 117 women from winning seats in Congress during the November midterm elections--the largest in history. Nor did it prevent suburban women from voting for Democratic candidates by 50% and above in every region of the country except the Deep South where they nevertheless went Blue by a margin of 43%. The times they are a changing. So who needs a #MeToo-themed 'Woman in White" when things are going so well for the so-called "gentler sex"?
Maybe its because 117 seats comprise only 21% of the total 535 votes in Congress when women account for 50% of the American electorate? Or because sexual harassment remains an issue in the workplace even though Human Resources departments have gotten better at containing it? Perhaps a retelling of Collins' classic novel is necessary for the same reason Schindler's List and Roots were necessary. Because maybe the old saying got it right: those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it.
Still, the thing about The Woman in White is that we're not supposed to know. We're not even supposed to believe. We're supposed to suspect. Collins' genius was to put us in the same predicament as the victims until all seems lost. Maybe it's just me, but the new adaptation seems more interested in dramatizing how the women characters are victimized--and believe me, they are victimized horribly in this story--than in allowing us to reach certainty on our own.
The new version is beautifully filmed. Its cast is excellent. I'm impressed by Ms. Seres' attempt to follow the novel's quasi-Perry Mason format by telling the story as testimony given by several characters. And to be fair, the miniseries is not entirely lacking in suspense. Especially if you're new to the story. There's plenty here to keep you more than a little off-center.
We expect film adaptations to take liberties. There's the 1948 movie version with the Maltese Falcon's "Fat Man," Sydney Greenstreet, in a key role.
The two-hour 1997 version included a sexual subtext, which is alluded to but not entirely present in the novel, but it nevertheless managed to keep the story suspenseful.
To its detriment, a 1982 version stuck slavishly to the book. That was back in the day when PBS did that kind of thing. The dinosaur-era before Amazon invented Audible.com.
Clearly, The Woman in White is a story with legs, as they say. There was even an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which ran in London's West End and on Broadway in 2004.
The new adaptation makes full use of the filmmaker’s poetic license to restate Collins’ classic novel for today’s audiences. It understands that film is an entirely different medium from print and must use different tools to make its point. Is this version meant to support #MeToo--or will you see it differently?
What’s great about all these adaptations is that they turn viewers into readers. And I’m all for it. In the end, the only way to get the whole hair-raising story--and to really understand what the victims are going through--is to read the novel. It’s a great ride and will keep you guessing till the last pages.
I'm a storyteller whose background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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