Here’s a truth universally acknowledged: Television and the Victorian novel are two wholly different media. Make as many comparisons as you will, but the 19th-century English novel will never experience any kind of seamless transition into the world of serial television. The incentives of the two forms are so incongruous, not to mention the contrast in creative and productive conditions that goes into generating them. When Laura Miller emphatically told us that “The Wire is NOT like Dickens,” she made many good points — an obvious one being that if one wished to reference a canonical novelist in lofty conversation about The Wire, Dickens would be a safe bet. But as Miller went on to state: Dickens wrote prose narrative on paper, and The Wire is a visual drama. It’s a good place to start as any if we’re looking to tease out the distinctions between the two.
Still, it won’t stop television (or film, for that matter) from continuing to draw on written stories. Alfred Hitchcock, that undisputed master of cinema, took from novelists such as Patrick Hamilton, Patricia Highsmith, and Dorothy Sayers for his film and television work alike. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, however, focused on a different story per episode, while the idea behind The Wire-versus-Dickens comparison is that such serial storytelling has the power to hook the viewer time and time again.
Joe Wright’s promising Anna Karenina premiered last week, and I’m still waiting to see what violence McGehee and Siegel have done to What Maisie Knew. (Will we ever know? Really though — when is this film premiering?) The former capitalizes on the period piece genre, while the latter pushes against its conventions by modernizing James’ story. This is often what happens in television as well — straight BBC period dramas such as Great Expectations and The Way We Were; or Gossip Girl, originally advertised as Edith Wharton for Modern Teens. (More specifically, the modern teen’s Age of Innocence, published in 1920, which makes it technically not at all a Victorian novel, but details! Details are what will get you when you’re adapting that novel for TV.) Yes, it can get a bit gimmicky, and judging by Gossip Girl — now in its final season — the grandeur and melodrama of old New York can only sustain increasingly wild plotlines for so long.
Here are some other Victorian (and Victorian-adjacent) novels that might make good television shows — not because they are filled with psychological realism that will translate into fodder for rich character work, but because they contain plots still and always rivetingly human. For execution, though, it’s probably still best to follow the BBC model: shorter seasons before it tends toward the gimmicky.
Emma (1815), Jane Austen
Considering the amount of hours people spend rewatching Clueless, it might as well be a television show. Austen’s novel about its eponymous matchmaker has spurred a number of BBC broadcasts and miniseries (the one starring Romola Garai is quite good), but what about a longer Wednesday night drama? Maybe on ABC, or even ABC Family? It would do well along the lines of Bunheads — balancing the slightly more insidious premise of shows such as Pretty Little Liars and Revenge. As a female lead, Emma is presumptuous and imprudent with her so-called talents, which lead to a series of set-ups, followed by missteps. And, yes, Emma finds love herself too — with the long-term, will-they-won’t-they subject of her initially platonic affections nonetheless.
Bleak House (1853), Charles Dickens
Rather than a straight adaptation of Bleak House, Victorianist Richard Menke suggested the spin-off premise of “Mrs. Bucket Detects.” Mr. Bucket is the ostensible and official inspector of Dickens’ novel, but his wife is “a lady of a natural detective genius” herself, “which if it had been improved by professional exercise, might have done great things, but which has paused at the level of a clever amateur.” Dickens slips this line about Mrs. Bucket’s potential genius in a parenthetical. But why not turn that inside out — realize her natural knack for inspection in an hour-long drama? Since Mrs. Bucket is already assisting her husband in the diegesis of Bleak House, think of what could be if she started her own sleuthing business! I’m picturing a mini-crime each episode, framed by a season-long arc in which Mr. Bucket trails the Tulkinghorn Case (except don’t ask Mrs. Bucket about Tulkinghorn’s death — she has NO INVOLVEMENT IN THIS). Obviously we’ll have to be a bit liberal in terms of timelines and mainstay characters, but we can look to Dickens for tips on that. Think Scandal, except with less American sentimentality and R&B background music.
Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Barrett Browning’s long poem isn’t prose per se, but it’s certainly playing on the conventions of the Victorian novel. Within these chapter-long narrative poems, there’s plenty of potential for multi-season plots. Also: flashbacks. The poem itself is about a female artist’s coming of age, and a television show focused around a woman’s creative and intellectual development would be very welcome. Aurora also has an ongoing love interest — Romney — who could further generate a side-story related to his political pursuits. This could be like Sex and the City, except set in 1850s London, where single, up-and-coming Aurora focuses on actually writing instead of finding a husband. So, sort of an Un-Sex and the City.
Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Mary Elizabeth Braddon
What could be more appropriate for the moving image than to take on a classic sensation novel? Lady Audley’s Secret is based on a then-notorious true story about Constance Kent, who confessed to killing her younger brother — so there’s that addition of historic media intrigue (Deadwood! Come back and finish with that fire, won’t you?). Appropriately, Braddon’s novel is about crimes and secrets. The novel itself boasts enough narrative and plot twists to drive a few seasons alone, but I’d love for it to start with the imaged storyline that led to George abandoning Lucy. A B-plot about how their son Georgey copes would be terrific as well.
Middlemarch (1871-2) or Daniel Deronda (1876), George Eliot
If I were to predict which of Eliot’s two canonical novels would be best televised, I’d probably go with Daniel Deronda. Middlemarch and its sprawling plot- and timelines might not translate to the evening drama mode so well as it would to daytime television. As the networked novel, Middlemarch would be supported by the generational focus of the traditional soap. Though perhaps an evening drama spin-off on Tertius and his various medical scandals, counterpointed by his knows-more-than-you-think wife Rosamond’s life at home? Daniel Deronda is more contained, even with its various swirling love plots. Imagine the dramatic tension one could generate from Grandcourt’s marital sadism — and his secret past! Or from his homosocial relationship with assistant Sir Hugo! Again, this novel is about broken marriages, romances that start and stop, offering narratives for multi-season arcs.
Portrait of a Lady (1881), Henry James
While there exists a tradition of James on Film, the novelist might finally be more suited for the television. James’ storytelling is so subdued and attenuated that it seems best realized in a medium that spans more time than a few hours in a darkened theater. As James once said about his novel The Ambassadors: “read five pages a day — be even as deliberate as that — but don’t break the thread. […] Keep along with it step by step — and then the full charm will come out.” If that isn’t good advice for the unraveling of a season-long plot! The Ambassadors, published in 1903, would make for solid TV premise, but I’m longing to see Isabel Archer lead her own series. Portrait of a Lady involves old houses and inheritances, bad marriages, female networks, and young women on the brink of losing innocence. Could we sell it as Downton Abbey, with far less silly plot twists, plus more believable romances?
New Grub Street (1891), George Gissing
New Grub Street is about both the literary and journalistic communities of 19th-century London. Of course, if necessary, any contemporary adaptation could transport them to New York City. There’s established Edwin Reardon — an impoverished but serious novelist — and then the younger Jasper Milvain, who, while somewhat of a hack, is at least not poor. A television show focused on media circles, now equipped with telegraphic communication! It could be Mad Men meets Newsroom.
Sister Carrie (1900), Theodore Dreiser
Sister Carrie heralds the start of a new century, bringing along with it: the modern girl! And not just any modern girl — a modern small-town girl who leaves her Wisconsin home to live in Chicago where she meets, yep, a city boy. Things continue on the up and up for 18-year-old Carrie after that, as her city boy Drouet (the first metrosexual man?) shows her the cosmopolitan ropes. Carrie goes from working in a factory where she makes clothes to wearing the clothes. She shows promise as a budding actress, and then transforms into a star. On the rise, Carrie finally moves to New York City, and shortly thereafter the novel ends. The television show, however, could deal with the obstacles of 1900 fame.
Wings of the Dove (1902), Henry James
You know how we’re all waiting for Walter White to die? And, subsequently, for what Skyler might end up doing with all that money when he does? Well, spoiler alert, but young, beautiful Milly Theale is suffering from a disease that is definitely going to kill her — and she’ll be leaving a large inheritance in her wake. Enter scheming lovers Kate and Densher — the former with her eye on the prize and the latter as her way to get at it. There are fabulous trips to Venice! There’s Densher unwittingly falling for Milly. There’s no-nonsense, deceitful Kate. There are a lot of petticoats. Wings of the Dove would work as both a period piece basking in old world European luxury or a modern one about blackmail and greed.
The Secret Agent (1907), Joseph Conrad
As the title suggests, there are secret agents. There is the complex character of Stevie, who presents television another opportunity to work through mental illness and its effects on the household. Conrad’s novel includes anarchists, terrorism, a bomb hidden under a coat. Not only that: it involves surveillance and eavesdropping, as well as a narrative that moves between the secret agent’s private home life and his even more private political one. There’s also domestic violence and a widow who almost finds love again. I really don’t want to bring up Homeland here, but I know that’s what you’re all thinking.