Since its publication in 1961, Dame Muriel Spark’s best known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, has appeared in a variety of incarnations. In 1966 it was adapted for the London stage by Jay Presson Allen and starred Vanessa Redgrave. On Broadway a year later, it starred Zoe Caldwell and her performance won that year’s Tony Award. It came to the big screen in 1969, and Maggie Smith who played Miss Brodie, won the Academy Award for Best Actress. It is a bravura role, a role to kill for.
I don’t know if she had to kill for it, but when in 1978, it was adapted for a seven part television series, it was Geraldine McEwan, perhaps best known now for her stint as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who snagged the part. And if the Scottish TV series has its problems, the one thing it does have is a consummate actress who turns in a performance as truly excellent in its way as those of her esteemed predecessors. When McEwan turns on her mischievous smiling eyes, she is irresistible. Her portrayal of a charismatic self assured aesthete captivating her classroom of junior girls is spot on. She is a joy to watch, and certainly the best thing in the series.
This adaptation as a whole though, now available in a three DVD set from Acorn, is another story altogether. First of all, although it deals with an unorthodox teacher in a Scottish girl’s school, her effects on her students, and their awakening awareness of sexuality, it pays only limited attention to many of the major plot elements of the Spark’s novel. Miss Brodie’s relations with the school’s male art and music teachers are completely watered down. The music teacher is played as an older man who is little more than a friendly fellow enthusiast. Her affair with the art teacher is limited to some flirtation and a kiss. All the sexual tensions of the earlier versions are unfortunately absent.
Among Miss Brodie’s flaws is her attachment to Italian Fascism and her support for Mussolini. The TV version makes her opinions clear and adds a confrontation with the father of one of her girls, an Italian seeking asylum in Great Britain, but there is no resolution. One day the Fascist poster and the photo of El Duce she has hung in the back of her class disappear from the wall and the subject is never broached again. Indeed, most all of the woman’s passionate pig headed devotion to Fascism and its effects on her girls that are so central to the other versions, are omitted. It is as though this Jean Brodie may have a minor flaw in her politics, buy she isn’t necessarily a bad influence on her students. In fact, by the end, her effect on several of her favorites is a positive one. The other large problem with the series is its ending — the seventh and last episode has no feeling of finality. Even if you are not acquainted with the book and know there is more to come, you are left unsatisfied.
What the series does well is present pre-teen innocence as Miss Brodie’s young pupils begin to become aware of sexuality. From their conversations on the nature of virginity to their ignorance about menstruation, the film depicts an age of romantic innocence perhaps long gone. Moreover, the young actresses do a fine job in conveying that naiveté.
The only bonus material in the Acorn set is a two minute section on the series from a newscast that features some commentary from Dame Muriel about the real life model for Miss Brodie and the school in which she taught.