Page To Screen: The Books Vs The Adaptations

We take a look at how our great telly adaptations compare to the great novels that inspired them…

Jodie Comer as Princess Lizzie


Well, this is quite possibly the single most adored, iconic and influential TV adaptation of all time. So it's strange to think that, back when it first aired, some Jane Austen purists were rattled by parts of it. Too saucy, they said. Some even thought there was too much of an emphasis on Darcy. As if there could EVER be too much Darcy. But such thoughts are for pedants only. This version, sprawling over many episodes, has the space to depict every last detail of the original novel, and then some. And, while it's true that Jane Austen never wrote a scene where Mr Darcy walked around in dripping wet white shirt, we'll... allow it. We're generous that way.


It's got all the historical figures - but with a twist of drama, intrigue and mystery. Philippa Gregory's historical fiction novels have swept the globe for years - adding personality and intrigue to the people you see in history class. While history focuses on the men, Gregory goes for something a bit more exciting - the women. Because for every King there's ever been on the throne, there's been a Queen next to him, and she probably saw a thing or two in her time. For these screen adaptions, we first meet the White Queen. An unsuspecting Elizabeth Woodville meets the King of England, Edward IV, on the side of the road during the Wars of the Roses. Sparks fly and before you can say "I wish that would happen to me" - she's sitting next to the King as the new Queen of England - the White Queen in fact. While many portraits of these two look pretty demur, the screen makes things look much more exciting. Our lead characters are played by Rebecca Ferguson (from your old favourite, The Red Tent) and Max Irons - the son of legend Jeremy Irons - and they definitely have a lot of chemistry.

Fast forward 20 years, and the War of the Roses is over, and the sly, mysterious Henry Tudor has won the throne. Now, Elizabeth's daughter (also, not confusingly called Elizabeth) is set to marry the new King - uniting the houses, and the country, after years of war. But it's not all smooth sailing for this pair. Unlike Elizabeth's parents, her marriage has been chosen for her, and she's not prepared to sit quietly. While we don't know much about these two from the history books, both the book and screen adaptions will give you a much more colourful insight to the pair, and what Elizabeth must have been thinking during the early years of her marriage into the House of Tudor.


Think "Robinson Crusoe" and the image of a scraggly-haired, slightly crazy-eyed hermit on a beach will probably come to mind. But that's a far cry from the hero of THIS Crusoe: a rip-roaring re-imagining of Daniel Defoe's classic tale of human endurance. True, the bones of the story are the same: white man is stranded on an island and buddies up with a black man called Friday. Except that this Robinson Crusoe is the MacGyver of his day, creating all kinds of ingenious contraptions on his island home. And he has a bickering, bantering bromance with the exasperated and sharp-tongued Friday. Fast-paced and action-packed, this Crusoe probably won't impress any English professors, but boy is it fun.


Back before he became James Bond, Pierce Brosnan played a very different suave and cocky Englishman. We speak of Phileas Fogg, the Victorian hero of Jules Verne's classic adventure tale, and Brosnan's version is as aloof and self-assured as the literary original. The plot, too, is identical to the novel, seeing Mr Fogg setting a wager that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. He's accompanied by a hapless valet (Eric Idle!) and chased by a police detective who thinks he's a robber (Peter Ustinov!). Add to that a genuinely globe-trotting production filmed on location in places like Yugoslavia and Thailand, and it's a fittingly epic adaptation of an epic saga.


Bob Hoskins as Geppetto? It's an inspired bit of casting that really works in this live-action adaptation of Carlo Collodi's classic children's tale. There are scenes that precisely mirror ones in the book, such as when a freshly-created Pinocchio reveals himself to be alive by kicking his unsuspecting father. But there is one giant difference. In this version, the Blue Fairy changes Pinocchio into a flesh-and-blood boy right at the beginning, rather than at the end. But don't worry, he's still on his classic quest to become a "real boy", because, you see, his HEART is still made of wood. Also, just wait till you see this version's Jiminy Cricket (who is definitely NOT called Jiminy).


Declared by many to be the greatest American novel ever written, Moby Dick is about Captain Ahab, driven to madness by his obsessive need to capture and kill the white whale which previously took his leg. Ahab is traditionally thought of as a furious, fire-and-brimstone figure, like a raging patriarch from the Old Testament. But this adaptation makes the bold decision to humanise him. As played by William Hurt, he's a grounded, cultured fellow. We even see him being all normal and sane at home, complete with a loving wife (played by Gillian Anderson) who is barely mentioned in the novel. Purists will find it shocking, but this unique and fascinating slant makes us think of the Moby Dick in an entirely new way. The high-seas action scenes are great too.


In most people's minds, Sean Bean IS Richard Sharpe. The idea of anyone else as the gruff, Napoleonic soldier is unthinkable. Well, that's if you ignore the fact the original actor cast in the role was Paul McGann, who only lost out to Mr Bean because of an injury on set. And there's also the slightly glaring fact that the Sharpe of Bernard Cornwell's original tales was supposed to be a lanky, dark-haired Londoner, rather than a blond-maned bloke from the North. But, frankly, who cares? Like we say, Bean IS Sharpe, and we'll fire a cannon at anyone who says otherwise.


It was inevitable this new take on Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers would put a fresh spin on things. After all, it's a story that's been adapted more times than you can shake a sword at, from Hollywood epics to that cartoon series with all the dogs (people of a certain age will know what we're talking about here). Yet, while this version undoubtedly comes up with its own plots, the basic set-up is actually very faithful to Dumas. Just like in the novel, D'Artagnan gets off on the wrong foot with Porthos, Athos and Aramis before becoming firm friends. Just like in the novel, Cardinal Richelieu is the dark power they're up against. And, just like in the novel, there's a sly, lethal femme fatale called Milady, stalking the shadows and stealing every scene she's in...


This big, glossy adaptation of the most famous Sherlock Holmes story of all changes aspects of the plot, and even alters some of the details about the mythology of the hound. But never mind all that: the really fascinating point of departure is the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which is more volatile than we've ever seen before. If you're used to them merely bickering, you're in for a shock with this version, in which Watson is genuinely suspicious of Sherlock's intentions, and Holmes himself is even more of a drug-addled, hostile eccentric than usual. This is what makes it stand out as a unique, anything-but-elementary take on two character we thought we knew.


James Herriot's cosy, nostalgic, biographical tales of life as a country vet were adapted into... cosy, nostalgic, biographical tales of life as a country vet. Yes, this celebrated TV series is every bit as charming and heart-warming as the original stories, featuring all of Herriot's beloved characters - including boyish vet Tristan, played by boyish future Doctor Who, Peter Davison. There's very little to add except, be sure to watch with a massive pot of tea and as many biscuits as you can possibly scoff.