A Quick Guide To Great Adaptations on Drama

From Austen comedies to Cookson tear-jerkers, Drama is the home of some of the best novel-to-television adaptations. Here are some of the writers whose worlds you can explore…

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is just one fantastic literary adaptation.

JANE AUSTEN

The writer: Jane Austen is far more than just a creator of light comedy romances. Of course, it's very true that her love stories are among the most wonderful ever told, full of sly flirtatious wit and will-they-or-won't-they suspense. Just look at the rocky courtship of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, which pretty much set the template for almost every rom-com to come since. And yet, apart from all the love stuff, Jane Austen was also a masterful chronicler of the country in general - the petty rivalries, the class system, the hypocritical shows of virtue, and the way women had to be strong and resourceful to make their way in patriarchal society. Ultimately, she gives us not just comedy, but a sharp-toothed society satire, right up there with Oscar Wilde.

A great adaptation: Pride and Prejudice may be the go-to Austen adaptation for most of us, but we have to make special mention of Persuasion. A story of missed chances and long regret, it focuses on Anne Elliot, a woman who crosses paths with the strapping soldier she once courted many years before, to find her emotions rekindled. It's not fizzy and frothy like the more famous Austen stories - this is a mature and poignant tale, and the adaptation does it full justice, being filmed in an utterly natural way. The stars were even forbidden from wearing make-up to look as real as possible, and the result is a costume drama like no other.

Catherine Cookson

CATHERINE COOKSON

The writer: A glance at Catherine Cookson's life story tells us where she got her ideas from. The illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic, she grew up believing her mother was her older sister, then toiled in various jobs, suffered serious illness and eventually overcame all this adversity to become the nation's bestselling writer. She created her own genre of gutsy, gritty stories set in the North, her plain no-nonsense writing style making her accessible to millions of readers. Never mind her misleadingly cosy reputation: Cookson's novels are hard-hitting and tell of domestic violence, doomed romances, wartime traumas, bigotry and sexism. Yet they also lift our spirits, thanks to brave, brilliant characters who - like Catherine herself - find their way from darkness to the light.

A great adaptation: There have been many great, star-studded Cookson adaptations. One of the most "Cookson-ish" is The Glass Virgin, which encompasses all the writer's favourite themes in one thrilling tale. We have the plucky young woman, the tyrannical father (a dastardly Nigel Havers), the tragic violence, the class struggle... and the flight across rural England, as our heroine escapes her childhood home in the company of a dashing love interest. Who happens to be played by none other than Downton Abbey's Brendan Coyle, looking startlingly young and dashing. A big emotional adventure, it's the ideal entry point for anyone new to Cookson.

Charles Dickens

CHARLES DICKENS

The writer: Charles Dickens wasn't just the biggest British novelist of the Victorian era. He is probably only second to Shakespeare as our country's national writer, whose characters seem to live and breathe even today in the 21st Century. And that's the key to the man's greatness. Even though his major focus was on life in the 19th Century - the workhouses, the slums, the rich enclaves, the swarm of Victorian London - he manages to transcends his era thanks to his deep humanity and satirical wit. A superstar in his own time (his serialized books were the Victorian equivalent of TV soaps), he gave us more masterpieces than you can shake a silver-tipped cane at, and changed the way we look at our nation and history.

A great adaptation: It's almost impossible to single out one Dickens adaptation, when you have the likes of Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations to choose from. But there are two major reasons why David Copperfield is a particular must-see. First, it's as close to a biographical tale as Dickens ever wrote, with the iconic, flamboyant character of Mr Micawber based on the writer's own debt-ridden father. Second, it's got some serious star power with everyone from Maggie Smith to Ian McKellen to Bob Hoskins to Dawn French in the cast, along with Nicolas Lyndhurst being brilliantly creepy as the cadaverous Uriah Heep. Not to mention the young lad playing David Copperfield himself - a promising child actor by the name of Daniel Radcliffe.

THOMAS HARDY

The writer: Thomas Hardy's life straddled both the 19th and 20th Centuries, and you can see that in his writing, which is both Victorian-seeming and truly modern at the same time. On the one hand, he wrote big books about society, like Dickens did. But he infused it with a radical, forward-thinking worldview, tackling subjects like lust, sexual violence, and the rights of women. In fact, readers at the time were scandalized by some of the ideas and descriptions in his books. Hardy was also as great at writing about rural Britain as Dickens was about London. He even invented his very own county, "Wessex", where his great novels take place. Restlessly and fearlessly questioning the conventions of his time, Hardy is a lot "edgier" than his rather quaint reputation might suggest.

A great adaptation: If you just watch one Hardy tale, it has to be Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Starring a glowingly beautiful Gemma Arterton as an innocent country girl who seeks out the aristocratic family she believes she is descended from, it's one of the most powerful stories of female awakening ever told. Ensnared by the sinister and decadent Alec D'Urberville, her only way to happiness seems to be through the love of the young, idealistic Angel Clare (a pre-stardom Eddie Redmayne), but she soon realizes that self-determination lies in her own hands. The costs are great, and you'll be in need of hankies by the end.