Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Doctor Thorne

Harry Richardson as Frank Gresham and Stefanie Martini as Mary Thorne in Doctor Thorne

To make an enjoyable literary adaptation for the screen the source doesn't have to be a masterpiece. In fact, trying to adapt a masterpiece for film or television can raise expectations that are hard to fulfill, since great novels offer a richer imaginative experience. Jane Austen's novels, for example, have frequently been travestied on film: badges of shame have been earned by adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (1940 and 2005), Mansfield Park (2007), and Persuasion (2007). [1]

On the other hand, Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Samuel Taylor took a little-known French thriller with an improbable twist, Boileau-Narcejac's D'Entre les Morts (From among the dead, 1954), and turned it into a masterwork of romantic obsession, Vertigo (1958). [2] So a source of the highest literary quality is hardly a necessary condition for a good film or television version.

In 2016 Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, adapted Anthony Trollope's novel Doctor Thorne (1858) as television series broadcast on ITV in Britain and on Amazon Prime in the US. (The Amazon series and the DVD split the original three episodes into four.) Doctor Thorne is probably the weakest entry in Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire series. It relies on not one but two highly implausible plots, one a rags-to-riches story and the other an inheritance narrative so contrived that I previously wrote that it "seems like it was taken from Charles Dickens' reject pile." [3] Nonetheless, Fellowes' version makes for very enjoyable watching.

The series was not well received on its initial broadcast. After the final episode The Guardian's Viv Groskop wrote, "I thought I needed a lie-down (by which I mean 'full medical sedation') after Downton. But after this I need some kind of horse tranquiliser. Or a memory drug to forget it ever happened." In The Telegraph Gerard O'Donovan damned it with faint praise by saying that "it was a rare case of pretty much everything coming to an end exactly as expected. . .all the more relaxing for removing the need to constantly guess at what might happen next." In other words, Doctor Thorne managed the neat trick of being both utterly farfetched and absolutely predictable. [4]

Well, yes. But this is true of the novel as well. You don't read Trollope for his plots; he himself wrote in his autobiography that plot "is the most insignificant part of a tale." [5] Trollope excelled at creating indelible characters, and Doctor Thorne (in both incarnations) offers its full share:
  • Sir Roger Scatcherd (played in the series by Ian McShane), a former mason who after spending time in prison for killing the seducer of his sister makes an immense fortune building railroads;
  • his long-suffering wife (Janine Duvitski), who from a laborer's helpmeet finds herself suddenly elevated to Lady Scatcherd;
  • Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front), whose husband owes vast sums to Sir Roger, and who in order to rescue the family fortunes does everything in her power to get her son Frank (Harry Richardson) to marry a rich woman;
  • Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini), Frank's childhood sweetheart, beautiful but poor and of "uncertain birth," who finds herself suddenly unwelcome in Lady Arabella's home;
  • Miss Martha Dunstable (Alison Brie), an American heiress whose considerable wealth (derived from her father's dubious patent remedy) frees her to say what she thinks and do what she pleases;
  • and the decent and kind Doctor Thomas Thorne (Tom Hollander), Mary's uncle and surrogate father, and the friend, confidant and physician to most of the other characters.
You might wonder exactly how an ex-convict stonemason became the richest man in the county and a baronet. Fellowes doesn't bother much about that, or about Henry Thorne (Tim Wallers), Thomas's rakish brother who seduces and impregnates Roger's sister—Henry appears in the first moments of the first episode only to be struck and inadvertently killed by a drunk Roger. Many of the novel's other side-plots and characters are reduced or shed entirely to keep the focus in the series firmly on the obstacles facing the union of Mary and Frank.

Rebecca Front as Lady Arabella Gresham and Phoebe Nicholls as the Countess de Courcy

Chief among these is Frank's mother. Rebecca Front does a wonderful job as the formidable Lady Arabella Gresham, who is far more concerned about her family's (meaning her own) status than her son's happiness. She even demands that Frank propose to Miss Dunstable, but when he tries to do so (and Fellowes doesn't have him go as far in the series as he does in the novel), Miss Dunstable is flattered but has to remind him that he should be true to Mary.

The other obstacles to the marriage of Frank and Mary, of course, are her relative poverty and lack of social status. If only Mary were an heiress. . .which she becomes when—mild spoiler—Sir Roger wills his estate to the eldest child of his sister should his own son, the worthless souse Louis (Edward Franklin), pass away before he turns 25. But for Mary to inherit, both Sir Roger and his son will have to die, and be quick about it. . .

Apart from the too-obvious creaking of the machinery of the plot, the weakness at the center of Doctor Thorne is that both Mary and Frank are more acted upon by others than themselves active shapers of their destinies. Frank is definitely made less fickle and more sympathetic in the series than in the novel. Among the scenes Fellowes left out is one in which he thrashes the inept Mr. Moffat (Danny Kirrane), who has jilted Frank's sister Augusta.

  Mary Thorne with her uncle, Doctor Thorne (Tom Hollander)

As for Mary, she is sweet, self-sacrificing and forgiving. In his Alastair-Cooke-like commentary before and after every episode on the DVD release Fellowes mentions that Trollope's heroines are more complex than those of Dickens. In some cases, certainly. To mention just a few, Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington has a sparkling vivacity; Grace Crawley (in The Last Chronicle of Barset) has a firmness of principle belied by her young age; and of course Lady Glencora Palliser (in the Palliser novels), as I wrote earlier, "is one of Trollope's most compelling characters—headstrong, willful, with a delightfully witty tongue. She is not always wise, but somehow always manages to engage our sympathies." [6] But Mary could be precisely one of those "virginal and flawless" heroines that Fellowes claims is typical of Dickens.

Ian McShane as Sir Roger Scatcherd

Really, it takes more than gorgeous gowns, stunning country houses, lush greenswards and elegant candlelit interiors for us to enjoy a 19th-century literary adaptation. But not much more. While Frank and Mary are attractive and charming, and Tom Hollander's Doctor Thorne provides the series' (and the novel's) moral center, the real entertainment is provided chiefly by McShane's blustering, bibulous Sir Roger, Front's dismissive, disapproving Lady Arabella, and Brie's genuine and gamesome Miss Dunstable, one of Trollope's most delightful characters (although Brie, whose striking beauty cannot be disguised by a severe hairstyle, is nowhere near as plain as my image of her novelistic counterpart).

Alison Brie as Martha Dunstable

Fittingly, the series ends with a nicely subtle suggestion that Miss Dunstable, after fending off the overtures of several fortune-hunters, may have found the man she wants to marry—only clearly he's not yet aware of it. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the sequel, Framley Parsonage, to discover if she succeeds. Here's hoping that Fellowes (or better yet, Andrew Davies) is working on it now.

Update 22 December 2018: Doctor Thorne was selected for my Favorites of 2018: Movies and television.

  1. For my favorite and least favorite Austen adaptations please see the post Six months with Jane Austen: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts.
  1. For a discussion of the parallels and differences between the novel and film, as well as the source of a key Vertigo scene in the obscure Pre-Code film Hot Saturday (1932), please see the post Obsession, perversity and recapitulation: Hitchock's Vertigo and its sources.
  1. For more on Trollope's Doctor Thorne and the other Chronicles of Barsetshire novels please see A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire.
  1.  Viv Groskop, "Doctor Thorne recap: episode 3 - let's take a memory drug to forget this disgrace." The Guardian, 20 March 2016. Gerard O'Donovan, "Doctor Thorne delivered a fairytale ending - review." The Telegraph, 20 March 2016.
  1. Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography. William Blackwood and Sons, 1883, p. 169:
  1. For more on Lady Glencora and Trollope's Palliser novels, please see A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 2: The Palliser novels


  1. Dear Pessimissimo: Many thanks for the Doctor Thorne post. Few writer-directors exasperate me as much as Julian Fellowes in his maudlin nostalgia for the landed British aristocracy. I started viewing Downton Abbey with trepidation (some things we do for our partners simply because we love them) and became so nauseous with each season that I had to quit. This wonderful synopsis of Doctor Thorne is a satisfying alternative to actual viewing.

    M. Lapin

    PS I never get overly concerned about sprawling and altogether improbable hardened labor convict to wealthy aristocrat or industrialist novels from the 19th century. The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Misérables are among my favorites.

    1. Cher M. Lapin: Your disdain for what you perceive as Fellowes' "maudlin nostalgia for the landed British aristocracy" was shared by Jenny Diski, who wrote that programs like Downton Abbey place viewers in the position of mourning minor losses of privilege by the extremely wealthy (see "Making a costume drama out of a crisis"). She also points out that Baron Fellowes' "escapist fantasies of love and landed wealth come directly from the social world and political party that talks compulsively of 'honest, hard-working families' while giving us austerity and cuts in public spending for most, and tax breaks for the already wealthy and overpaid." (To Americans her 2012 article may sound prescient.)

      I do think that there is something slightly different than nostalgia happening in Doctor Thorne, although that is probably due more to Trollope than to Fellowes. Of course, the series is filled with the spectacular gowns and lavish mansions of the rich, intended in part for us to see what is at stake for Frank and his sisters in their choices of marriage partners. However, Frank's proposal to Miss Dunstable is both mercenary and emotionally insincere. The character most determined to maintain the family's wealth and privilege, Lady Arabella, is also the least sympathetic. And while the inheritance plot is ultimately resolved in a way that allows Frank to get both love and money, it is so absurd that it points up the unreality of that outcome; it functions as its own critique.

      As I mention in my post on Diski's article, 19th-century novels "can be quite subversive in their attitudes towards the constraints of class and gender." While it would be a long stretch to call the TV version of Doctor Thorne subversive, I don't think it's quite all maudlin nostalgia either.

      Many thanks for your comment!