Unfortunately for John Galsworthy, as for quite a few other winners of the Nobel Prize for literature, his reputation over the course of the 20th Century gradually lost much of its luster. Writing at a time when new ideas about what literature ought to do were changing and writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce were looking to these new horizons, Galsworthy’s work seemed to many to be looking in the wrong direction. He was behind the times. He was a writer who seemed to have more in common with Dickens and Thackeray than with D. H. Lawrence or Joseph Conrad. He deserves a better fate.
And luckily for him and us as well that better fate may yet await. If his resurrection is coming, it may well be one more happy result of the compelling adaptation of his best known work The Forsyte Saga as an acclaimed TV miniseries by Stephen Mallatrat and Jan McVerry. Galsworthy’s epic chronicle follows the fortunes of the family Forsyte from 1886 to 1920 through three novels and two short stories: The Man of Property, Indian Summer of a Forsyte, In Chancery, Awakening and To Let. The Mallatrat – McVerry adaptation is divided into two series. Series 1 (2002) takes the Forsytes through the second of the novels. Series 2 (2003) green lit after the success of the first series follows with the story of the new generation detailed in To Let.
Both series titled The Forsyte Saga Collection will be available in a five-DVD boxed set from Acorn Media on August 14. It includes some 30 minutes of footage not shown when the series aired in the U. S. on PBS. There is also a 20-minute feature on the making of the series, as well as biographical information about Galsworthy and the cast.
The multi-generational story of a well-to-do middle class family bound by rigid set of old social values trying to deal with a new emerging world view speaks to the modernity of the author’s themes and ideas if not his style, and the adaptation keeps fine focus on those themes and ideas. It makes emphatic scenes and events Galsworthy himself left undefined, and creates passionate drama where the novelist chooses reticence. Adultery, jealousy, revenge: these are the universal themes that run through the narrative transforming what might outwardly seem to be merely ordinary into the stuff of ‘saga.’
Damian Lewis, currently featured on HBO’s Homeland, stars as the tightly wound Soames Forsyte and Gina McKee is Irene, the unhappy object of his passion. Rupert Graves is young Jolyon, the sometime rebel who rejects the family’s values and leaves his wife and child for another woman. They head an ensemble cast that sets the mark for costume drama. From the elderly patriarch to the simple servant, the lovelorn ingénue to the incorrigible reprobate, the series is filled with fine acting and definitive performances.
As the recent success of Downton Abbey convincingly demonstrates once again, British actors do costume drama with a style and panache wondrous to behold. They manage to take the stuff of soap opera and turn it into high art. Give them material that comes closer to high art in the first place and they can turn it into a masterpiece.
Indeed, watching what they have done may well inspire viewers to spend some time with the original, and if they do they will find themselves pleasantly surprised. Galsworthy’s epic stands tall. If the adaptation takes a liberty or two with the original, nothing seems completely out of line. Characterization is spot on. The story line is fairly intact. Some of the dialogue is taken right off Galsworthy’s page. This is an adaptation that is not only excellent in its own right it does full justice to the original.