I've just finished watching the first episode of the 8-part series, Sanditon, on ITV this week, based on Jane Austen's unfinished novel. I was very much looking forward to seeing the series and afraid of being disappointed. Screenwriter, Andrew Davies, is, after all, the brains behind my favourite Jane Austen adaptation of all time - Pride and Prejudice (1995). Surely he would be the best person to adapt the never-before-serialised Sanditon?
Excited to view the setting of Sanditon on screen, I enjoyed the beautiful seascape of Sanditon with its high, green cliffs and the digital remake of the sleepy-village-turned-seaside hub. The subtle changes in society where a landowner-turned-businessman, Tom Parker, leaves sleepy village life and attempts to turn a village into a vibrant, popular seaside resort, making money from entrepreneurship rather than ancestral land, is well captured. The ball episode has people dancing to waltz, which was an entirely new form of dance, involving much closer physical contact between partners - the choice of dance perhaps reflects Tom Parker's vision of making Sanditon a modern, popular bathing place, even more so than Brighton or Eastbourne.
Andrew Davies' style has changed a lot over the years, and his take on period dramas is far more catered to modern sensibilities these days. The adaptation is popularised (perhaps by what Davies thought was popular demand after the Mr Darcy "wet shirt" episode) by adding nudity in places, (which I felt was not necessary to the story) and the use of more modern, popular soundtracks.
I particularly enjoyed the small details based on Jane Austen's fragment, such as the fascination for blue shoes ("Waterloo blue" shoes were in vogue following the victory at Waterloo - I would have loved to have seen more references to the historical events). I also enjoyed the scene where Arthur Parker toasts bread for Charlotte Heywood, as this was discussed in detail by Jane Austen.
The acting, in general, is excellent, and the portrayal of Lady Denham (Anne Reid) is particularly accurate as an "abrupt", "free-spoken", "mean", "self-important" character who only cares about money. Sanditon being a coming-of-age story of sorts, Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) is convincing as the spirited, smart heroine who is on a learning curve, observing the kinds of vices and manipulations that would take place in a Regency seaside resort. However, I would have loved to have seen more of the obsessive personality of Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) whom Jane Austen describes as a "zealot" who "could talk about it (Sanditon) forever".
Also, in the fragment, Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox) comes across far more ludicrous, bordering on Mr Collins, with his numerous rote-learned quotes and his never-ending wrong usage of complex vocabulary, which Charlotte finds silly. In Jane Austen's Sanditon, Clara Brereton sees through Sir Edward and only feels disdain towards him, while the adaptation portrays Sir Edward ( simply as a vicious, seductive character who manipulates others (similar to Mr Wickham, for example).
Where are all the hypochondriacs? As Jane Austen was writing from her deathbed, she coined several characters complaining about all sorts of illnesses, aches and pains, and despite her own condition, she despised and mocked those who complained about their health. The story focuses on health and illness, the seaside resort being created as a health hub of sorts, and is full of people with complaints of various kinds. The story begins with Tom Parker falling off his carriage and having a painful sprain on his foot - an episode, which is only mentioned in passing here. In the fragment, Arthur Parker (and his sisters) is a sickly, self-pitying hypochondriac, who never ceases to complain about his health - in the adaptation, he runs into the sea naked and forgets all about his (imagined) ailments!
Sidney Parker (Theo James), as Charlotte's love interest, is handsome and cold in true Darcy-style. He does come across "fashionable" and "clever", as described in his introduction towards the end of the fragment. However, there is something about his personality that irritates the viewer, and the twist at the end of the episode (which I shall not reveal at this point) turns things between the two main characters over, and I feel that this may have happened too early in the story to be true to the style of Jane Austen. In Emma, for instance, a very similar episode happens towards the very end of the story.
In short, Andrew Davies' Sanditon makes for entertaining period drama; pure Jane Austen it is not (disappointingly). Much of the humour and original dialogue is lost in the adaptation. The first episode has followed Jane Austen's plot quite carefully but I was disappointed about how quickly and superficially the original story written by Jane Austen was covered in the episode. Judging by the twists in the story towards the end of the episode, the story may well go in a more extreme direction - I'm not sure if I wish to watch the rest of the series and spoil my enjoyment of Jane Austen's Sanditon. I do hope that Andrew Davies stays true to the story and does not turn Sanditon into a soap opera, as it might appear.