Illustration by Ben Beechener
I am a lover of period dramas and I know I’m not the only one. I have exhausted many of the classics and now I am excited by each new anticipation gracing our screens. Recently we’ve truly been spoilt for choice, Little Women (2019) and Emma (2020) are now firm favourites. These movies had great commercial success and were really creative in their portrayal of these famous stories. However, they have only been possible due to a recent fundamental shift in cinema’s approach to period dramas, particularly in relation to classic novel adaptations. In the past, there was a rigid style for period dramas; they were slow, romantic movies with little space for new interpretations. Now they are lighter and brighter, and have a younger target audience, which makes them more accessible to a wider audience. Without several movies over the last 20 years breaking this previous period drama mould, these Oscar nominees and winners likely wouldn’t have been made. Funnily enough, it all started with Pride and Prejudice (2005).
If we look at some of the famous period dramas of the late 20th century, A Room with a View (1985), Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Pride and Prejudice (1995), they certainly have fundamental similarities. They are quiet movies, firmly set in the romance genre, with a heavy reliance on heavier dialogue. They utilise muted colour palettes and generally have simple, undistracting costumes. There can be some dry humour speckled through the narrative, like in Sense and Sensibility (1995) or Emma (1996), but they still maintain a generally slow pace that keeps relatively faithful to the original work. Now, I quickly hasten to add that these aren’t supposed to be negative attributions. They can be very popular and very successful; Emma Thompson won an Oscar for the screenplay of Sense And Sensibility(1996). Put simply, this was a framework for period dramas- a genre expectation- for directors to fill in as they chose, often catering to a middle-aged female demographic. The problem arises when this mould becomes repetitive; as a framework it encourages rigidity and formulaic films.
So, the question is: when did this change? From what I can tell, the film that broke the formula first was Pride and Prejudice (2005). The cinematography is refreshing; I particularly think of the shots of Lizzie on the swing and when the camera pans across the whole house and its participants. The costumes and sets are still muted, but in a more natural earthy way than before. The dialogue is quick witted and fiery, maintaining the correct tone, but deviating often from the original text. These aspects were also some of the most successful parts of the movie. It was still decidedly a romantic period drama adaptation, but there’s a definite change from the 1990s. There’s good reason for this as well. Working Title produced the movie, coming from the successes and background of Love Actually and Bridget Jones’ Diary, and they wanted to make a Pride and Prejudice for a younger generation, focusing on the confusing nature of your first love. Working Title co-chairs and Pride & Prejudice producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner commented ‘We felt that it was time to bring Austen’s original story, concentrating on Lizzie, back in all its glory to the big screen for audiences everywhere to enjoy’. Only a few years earlier, the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice proved enormously popular and for many (like myself) this was the definitive version of the novel. The movie needed to be different; it needed to break the mould of period drama to distinguish itself as a worthwhile movie to see in its own right, not just a copy of a tv series. The production team knew this. Screenwriter Deborah Moggach changed the time period of the production to distance the movie from the tv show. Joe Wright was chosen as director for his fresh outlook on the movie, who until then specialised in social realism tv work. While he had seen the 1940 adaptation before (an unfaithful ‘silver screen Hollywood’ version), he deliberately chose not to watch any other adaption in order to be as original as possible. In an attempt to market to a different audience and keep distance between that and its predecessor, the movie became more playful, modern and inventive. Thus, the movie opened the genre up to new opportunities.
We can follow the new treatment to period dramas from there. Jane Eyre (2011) and the tv series Great Expectations (2011) attempts a more stylish sombre interpretation of the novels, whereas Far From the Madding Crowd (2015) follows a similar muted, playful and romantic style to Pride and Prejudice (2005). The movies use modern cinematography, universal morals-of-the-story and energetic scripts to market these literary classics to that younger, modern audience. With their continued popularity and large financial backing, we see in the last couple of years a development again in the genre, away from the subdued romantic or melancholic period drama. Little Women(2019), Emma (2020) and The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) are colourful, stylised and humorous. They continue the process of modernisation by their universal relatability- often with coming-of-age stories- but also by bringing out the comedic value from the original text and transforming it into a humour modern audiences understand. To achieve this, a range of new cinematic techniques are used with a confidence to be different to other films. The race-blind casting of David Copperfield and the ambiguous ending of Little Women were also refreshingly modern and suits the more diverse audience it has; once again, they pushed the boundaries of what a period drama could be- namely not white and patriarchal. Personally, I really enjoy the direction the genre has taken recently because, as a historian, I find people often equate history with a seriousness which just isn’t the case. Instead of breathing life into the literature, these movies point to the life already there.
And then we get to the latest TV craze, Bridgerton, renewed for at least 4 series. Of course, it is no literary classic; it instead fits more in the company of Outlander and or other popular serial historical fictions. However, it’s remarkable that a mass marketable trashy soap opera set in Regency England could work so well. It has worked for many reasons, but I don’t think it could’ve happened without the groundwork of the other films like Pride and Prejudice (2005). The movie changed the parameters of what period dramas should and could be. Looking to the future, this can only mean good things for movie lovers.