First of all, before watching this, I had reservations about how Fielding’s 800-page magnum opus would be refashioned into an abridged TV ‘mini-series’ (a media form I typically associate with Netflix true-crime narratives and Belgian police drama). My concern was that the four-hour restriction would mean the show would be solely focused on the romance story of Tom and Sophia, and fail to include the myriad of misadventures, farcical moments and utter bawd that make up most of the original novel. But what I discovered in fact was the opposite: whilst the producers had tried their best to contain as much of the novel’s various stories and comical moments as physically possible, the show as a result managed to feel both overstuffed and underdeveloped.
The show suffered from its brevity – the main joy, for me, in Fielding’s Tom Jones is in the menagerie of bizarre and wacky supporting characters. The condensation of the story into four less-than-an-hour episodes meant there was little space to develop side plotlines. This meant that, for example, I was less than convinced by Blifil’s nastiness or bitterness, the lack of development of Thwackum meant that the reveal of him as Molly Seagrim’s liaison fell flat and I lost all sense of who Nightingale or Nancy were to the point that I could neither follow nor take any interest in their story. Tom lacked rapport with most, if not, all of the characters, and the lack of introductory screen time to establish the relationship between Tom and Sophia meant that their romance felt lifeless and forced. I was left sceptical of their supposed romantic declarations at the end (these characters barely know one another I thought – of course, not entirely unusual for an eighteenth-century marriage, but strange for a narrative in which the romance is supposed to be based on love, rather than money or status).
Making Sophia and Honour Black was a dynamic decision which brought the show into discussion with contemporary issues around decolonisation and diversification, and demonstrated an awareness of the true Georgian England in which Black people did live and work, contrary to former white-centric visions of the period. The problem here was that it added another narrative into a show which was already buckling under the weight of its myriad plotlines, meaning there was little room for either their Blackness to be properly addressed or for their story to be fully articulated. Rather like the recent series of Bridgerton, this insertion of a Black narrative without incisive focus risked feeling ‘tokenistic’. Overall, it did little to counter my feeling that producers should look to create shows in which eighteenth-century Black characters and their stories are central rather than peripheral (as has recently been done with the film Chevalier about French-Caribbean musician Joseph Bologne).
Novels like Tom Jones in which the narratorial voice is so powerful and critical for our interpretative perceptions of the text are notoriously hard to translate onto the screen. Recently the Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events approached this issue by making Snicket a tangible character within the show (played by Patrick Warburton). Alternatively, this series chose to adopt Sophia, rather than Fielding, as the narrator of the story, ostensibly presenting the narrative through a more feminine, and feminist, POV. The novel’s Sophia certainly holds the potential to resonate with more modern values – she fights against the cultural and societal limitations imposed upon her and attempts to take back her independence and choice in a stifling masculine world. Using her as the framing device for the story here insinuated that the producers want us to think, at least on some level, that this was Sophia’s story. However, the series left her person two-dimensional and underdeveloped, and failed to emblazon her with any sense of feminist charge. Her narratorial voice was inconsistent and erratic and her position as a framing narrator seemed to displant her on the outside of the action. Like Bridgerton’s Lady Whistledown, she was left on the periphery acting as commentator, rather than active participant, and the modernising potential of this new narratorial angle was left unfulfilled.
That said, I can be a harsh Critick, and I did enjoy watching the show for entertainment purposes, despite some of its foibles. The joy in this production for me was predominantly in the costume and the settings – having recently spent a fortnight in Armagh, I was delighted to recognise its Georgian buildings making an appearance. In particular, the masked ball was a lively, joyful surge of colour and choreography. Like many period dramas, this was a smoother, cleaner, more sanitised eighteenth century without pock marks or poverty (apart from a very fleeting moment in lower-class London) and with modern-day level dentistry. This sense of shiny optimism stretched to the plot, which avoided Allworthy’s illness and particularly Bridget’s death, bringing us a sentimental reunion between mother and son that Fielding’s novel refuses. Too much of a happy ending? Perhaps, but I think that’s what one can expect of a show that, again like Bridgerton, aims for feed-good frolic over realism, with a much wider audience, I expect, than will have read the original novel.
And I suspect that I probably would have enjoyed the show more if I wasn’t already so familiar (and in love) with Fielding’s novel. It is so often the fate of adaptation to be microscopically scrutinised in comparison with the original texts, and I’m usually one of the first to defend an adaptation’s right to deviate from the source as wildly as it feels fitting. However, I found this production, in trying to balance too precariously between imitation and faithfulness to the novel, and adaptation and contemporary renewal, unfortunately fell into a rather spiritless abyss between them. Overall, I felt that the show lacked the absurdity, burlesque and just downright silliness of Fielding’s original and failed to compensate in other ways – with a convincing love story or an intriguing comment on race, for instance. Perhaps I just can’t forgive it for cutting my favourite scene in which during a mob graveyard fight Molly Seagrim charges through the crowd using a skull and thighbone as her weapons. But that scene for me captures all the eccentricity, volatility and whirling pace of Fielding’s novel and encapsulates a joyous vision of the eighteenth century as weird and wacky and wonderful. Bogged down in gloomy news stories of climate change and corrupt governments, a bit of Georgian silliness is something we all need.