Anthony Trollope, Napoleon Sarony (New York Public Library)
Last night Julian Fellowes’s adaptation of Doctor Thorne bowed out on ITV. When I first heard the Downton Abbey creator was intending to transport Anthony Trollope’s novel to the small screen, my response was one of anticipation and trepidation. I was excited because the novel features fairly prominently in my thesis chapter on the representation of the country practitioner in Victorian fiction and medical literature. Yet I couldn’t help wondering whether its gentle plotline would be dragged down by a script penned by Fellowes, left to crawl along at a snail’s pace like Downton circa seasons 3-6. Now I’ve digested all of Thorne’s three-episode run, I feel a similarly mixed reaction. The novel’s mix of comedy, drama and romance – its preoccupation with marriage and money – was neatly repackaged for Sunday-night audiences. Yet it had an almost pantomimic feel, which seemed to strip out all the ambiguity of Trollope’s characterisation. The novel’s plot is hardly the most demanding, but nor is it quite so saccharine as it appeared on the telly. Even more fundamentally for me, the ITV adaptation seemed to be devoid of actual doctoring altogether!
I should clarify that I’m no purist when it comes to my literary favourites being (re)interpreted for television. I absolutely loved the recent BBC version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (2015). It kept the novel’s spine-tingling suspense and clever plot twist intact while giving the story something of a modern makeover, a bit of twenty-first century spice in the form of drink, drugs, and Aidan ‘Poldark’ Turner smouldering in a towel. I also became increasingly absorbed by Tony Jordan’s Dickensian (2015-6) earlier this year – I thought it was a masterful mash-up inspired by love, if not fidelity. It seemed to me to have all the generic idiosyncrasy of the author himself, combining murder mystery, the Gothic, grotesque comedy and biting social commentary – as well as adding the trappings of a contemporary soap opera.
My problem with ITV’s Doctor Thorne was not that it omitted most of the medical aspects of the novel per se but that the story seemed all the weaker for it. To relegate Thorne’s medical practice to the margins is to oversimplify both plot and character.
Tom Hollander’s Thorne was cast in the mould of one of our archetypal period drama patriarchs – a thoughtful, well-intentioned older man concerned for his young ward’s welfare in a hostile marriage market. Yet Trollope is acutely aware that Thorne lacks the conventional credentials of a romantic hero, as I explained in my blogpost last year. In some ways, the ITV adaptation captured this sense of ambivalence. Trollope’s narrator notes that his readers may be more attracted to the plight of Frank Gresham, the amiable and handsome heir, than that of the country doctor. Viewers too, may also have found their eyes and/or attentions wandering towards the beautiful Mary Thorne and her glamorous suitor, Frank Gresham. In the book, however, Frank remains a relatively empty or superficial character compared to the increasingly engaging and complicated Thorne. The reader learns to appreciate how a hard-working country GP might be an interesting and worthy protagonist. On the small screen, however, both remained fairly one-dimensional throughout.
Fellowes seemed unwilling to engage with some of the more difficulty aspects of Thorne’s character. He is repeatedly shown to be a proud man, not only principled but rather haughty. (Indeed, his name is perhaps indicative of his prickly or spikey personality.) The narrator suggests that, “[n]o man plumed himself on good blood more than Doctor Thorne; no man had greater pride in his genealogical tree”. He is described as having aristocratic connections, though he comes from a poorer branch of the family and therefore must work for a living. Thorne’s recalcitrant attitude spills over into his medical work, for he refuses to show deference towards patients, a trait which repeatedly galls Lady Arabella. He is described as “brusque” and “authoritative”. Although Trollope is quick to assuage the reader’s fears that this might undermine Thorne’s bedside manner, he is far from being uncritical of his hero. He notes that, “[i]f there was on Dr Thorne’s cranium one bump more developed than another, it was that of combativeness”.
Although these attributes influence his professional interactions, he is consistently redeemed by the care and attention he pays to his patients. For instance, Thorne insists on dispensing drugs as well as offering advice thereby making his services more affordable for the poor, even though his rivals in the medical marketplace regard this practice as degrading and undignified. He is an anomaly in the “provincial medical world”. He is depicted as slavishly following the demanding and antisocial work patterns of country practice, journeying long distances at night to visit his patients. Even at the novel’s close, Thorne remains a diligent and hard-working doctor. Despite his niece’s newfound wealth and social station, Thorne retains and even extends his medical practice. The ITV adaptation, however, excised most references to his medical work – rarely was he seen in an explicitly professional mode, aside from when Roger and Louis Scatcherd met their untimely ends. As the curtain drew to a close, he was seen in an extravagant ballroom, inviting the wealthy American heiress Miss Dunstable for a dance. Indeed, whereas Trollope’s character explicitly has to work for a living, the small-screen Thorne seemed much more of a leisurely gentleman. We rarely saw him preoccupied with money except when it came to securing his niece’s interests. This seems somewhat curious – the adaptation was clearly interested in money and status as the story’s central themes, yet it chose to focus solely on the inheritance/ debt plotline and neglected to show some of the crucial aspects that determine Thorne’s liminal social position.
The small-screen Thorne seemed to lack a sense of vocation, though he was apparently possessed with a colossal sense of duty. In the book, his career as a doctor is crucial to his interactions with the other main characters. He is not only a friend and financial adviser to the Greshams and the Scatcherds, he is also their family doctor. He is repeatedly brought into contact with them in medical consultations and his job is intimately related to his function as a go-between. Indeed, particularly important to the novel (but practically absent on-screen) was the way in which Thorne is dismissed by his patients when he falls out of personal favour. Both Sir Roger and Lady Arabella are shown to exercise their power as patients in rejecting Thorne’s ministrations and summoning his rival, Dr Fillgrave – a character totally omitted in the adaptation – instead. They must come to recognise Thorne as the superior practitioner (and superior person) and humble themselves by recalling his services. The reader has an acute understanding of the way in which Thorne’s personal and professional affairs are enmeshed. By refusing to pander to the whims of his wealthy patients, Thorne is shown to have integrity as well as pride.
For me, this gives rise to some of the most interesting and ambivalent aspects of the novel’s morality. It is in Thorne’s capacity as Sir Roger’s doctor and friend that he learns the contents of the dying man’s will. As in the adaptation, we see him uneasy and even fraught about how to manage his niece’s relationship with the Scatcherd family. After Sir Roger’s death, Thorne must become Louis’s guardian and doctor. When reading the novel, I could not help but wonder about the conflict of duty he must have suffered in trying to prolong the life of the ailing young man standing between Mary and her fortune. Thorne does not, of course, waver in his professional duty and this makes him seem a noble and principled character. What the TV adaptation really butchered for me, however, was the novel’s close. Trollope’s handling of the rather predictable, rather schmaltzy ending is much defter. In last night’s closing episode, Thorne wasted next to no time in informing everyone of Mary’s sudden (good) fortune. In the book, he conceals this information for some time, ensuring that the Greshams accept Mary on her own terms. This is not only key in sustaining our interest in the plot but also complicates our response to Thorne. While his actions are shown to stem from his principles, there is also a somewhat uncomfortable sense that he is controlling the action and the fates of others. One feels he could have spared his niece much pain, and given her greater agency, had he informed her of what lay in store. In his medical work and his personal life there is – for me – a sense of him ‘playing God’.
Thorne’s position as country doctor is not only fundamental to the novel’s themes and moral complexity, it is also key to much of its comedy. Fellowes’s adaptation was a light-hearted affair, which drew on the sorts of expressions and gestures we might typically expect from pantomime. Yet by cutting Dr Fillgrave from the script, it missed an opportunity to capitalise on some of the most humorous moments in the novel. Fillgrave repeatedly characterises his rival as a doctor interested in making money but is gradually revealed to be a hypocrite, himself preoccupied with questions of remuneration and status. Perhaps it was feared that the professional tussles between these two men would not work well for modern audiences. It can be difficult (though far from impossible) to appreciate the Victorian notions of medical etiquette which govern the two men’s interactions with one another. Perhaps given the show was limited to a three-episode run it seemed easier to omit this aspect of the novel altogether.
Despite my misgivings, there were aspects of the adaptation that I enjoyed. Rebecca Front was fabulous – as ever – as the scheming Lady Arabella and Alison Brie (whom you might recognise from Mad Men and Community) twinkled as the frank and forward Miss Dunstable (though her curtain-closing dance with Thorne seemed on the cringey side).* I also quite liked the sinister pairing of Edward Franklin as Louis Scatcherd with Sean Cernow as his creepy footman, Jonah. The adaptation seemed to have infused both characters with quite a bit more menace than I remember in the book – there was a palpable sense of sexual threat when Louis tried to cajole/force Mary into joining him for dinner while staying at Boxall Hill. I couldn’t help wondering if this depiction said more about Fellowes’s treatment of the nouveaux riches than Trollope’s, but the actor seemed to handle his character’s perpetual alcoholic stupor with aplomb. In fact, there was a lot of potential here, with plenty of competent actors on hand to manage more than they were ultimately given to do.
As anyone who has also been watching The Night Manager (the BBC’s brilliant adaptation of the John le Carré novel) can attest, Tom Hollander clearly has a lot to offer when presented with a more demanding script. He is fabulous as Hugh Laurie/Richard Roper’s sidelined and embittered associate, Corkoran. So it’s a pity that he wasn’t given a more nuanced depiction of Doctor Thorne to sink his teeth into. Clearly, Sunday-night audiences aren’t dissuaded by something darker or more difficult to follow – The Night Manager has been trouncing Doctor Thorne in the ratings (with more than three million extra viewers tuning in). While Fellowes praised Trollope’s “ambivalent” attitude towards questions of class and money, he also described his adaptation as “a little three-parter, a love story for spring”. This somewhat diminutive approach to the story seems to reflect its impoverished ambitions for the novel and its impoverished expectations of period drama audiences.
While many have a tendency to approach small-screen adaptations through rose-tinted glasses, the best undoubtedly offer at least a glimpse into the complexities of the novel or astutely repackage them into a shape more suitable for the medium of television. It’s not surprising that scripts have to cut out and strip out sub-plots and characters from their literary forebears. But for me, Thorne’s medical practice is not expendable – it’s inextricably linked with the novel’s major themes and plot points. It adds those all-important shades of grey to Thorne’s character and without it, he sadly seems much diminished. Moreover, modern adaptations often profess to show the way in which historical fiction taps into themes still ‘relevant’ to today’s audiences. For Fellowes, the relevance of Doctor Thorne seemed to lay in its preoccupation with class and money. Yet in the midst of industrial action from junior doctors and debates about the stresses and strains experienced by GPs, is there a more ‘relevant’ protagonist than an overworked country doctor, struggling to reconcile his personal and professional obligations?
*Addendum: I have since learned via a wonderfully well-informed discussion on the Anthony Trollope Society Facebook page that Thorne does indeed go on to marry Miss Dunstable in Trollope’s Framley Parsonage – so perhaps their flirtation wasn’t such an odd addition to the ITV adaptation after all!