Verity Burke, ‘Narrative on screen: BBC’s The Moonstone (2016)’
Verity Burke is a doctoral student at the University of Reading, working on the Cole Library of Early Medicine and Zoology. Her project is an interdisciplinary study of anatomies in nineteenth-century science, medicine and literature, and their effect on both epistemology and the popular imagination. Her wider research interests include Charles Dickens, surgery, forensics and the body. She loves a good taxidermy squirrel. Come say hi on Twitter @VerityBurke or on https://reading.academia.edu/VerityBurke
Revamped for the BBC’s Love to Read season, perhaps it is no surprise that the directors of the recent adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) were fascinated by the original novel’s narrative style. The series’ executive producer, John Yorke, wrote that the choice of novel ‘was the easy part’, but the challenge was ‘translating the novel’s ground-breaking epistolary form – where a series of fallible narrators write their testimony about the build-up to, and aftermath of, the theft of the Moonstone – to the screen’. Collins’s novel about the theft of a (possibly cursed) Indian gem has been a popular choice for adaptation, with stage versions appearing shortly after the novel’s original publication and a Hollywood film adaptation in 1934 (the Beeb has been especially partial, adapting The Moonstone for our goggleboxes four times; 1959, 1972, 1996 and 2016, as well as releasing several radio versions). The most recent screen version draws significant inspiration from the novel’s format, engaging and playing with the ways narration can reveal (and, of course, conceal) the truth behind the Moonstone’s disappearance.
The BBC’s 2016 adaptation plays with this transition from text to screen from the opening of its first episode, in which the referential, adaptive nature of the show is foregrounded. Paper puppets are used to perform the novel’s prologue – of the Moonstone’s original theft by evil Uncle Herncastle – using a voice-over to deliver the story and emphasise the importance of narrative. This metatheatrical performance is used as the opening to every subsequent episode, carefully connecting the past plot with the present. Connections between the novel and the episodic nature of television series are almost a cliché of adaptation studies, with particular critical attention paid to serialised format and the latter’s debt to the former for tropes such as the cliffhanger, but the BBC’s Moonstone appears to pay more direct homage to its literary forebear. Producer John Yorke notes that, ‘rather than opt for a linear retelling of the story, we decided to reflect The Moonstone’s narrative structure by having Franklin interview the key characters’. Blake believes he can solve the mystery because he will hear ‘testimony’ and accounts that the police were not privy to, using these stories to help piece together gaps in the existing knowledge about the theft. These individual testimonies function as flashbacks, with the show using narrative as a more literal window through which we as viewers, and Blake as detective, can ‘see’ the past. The BBC’s Moonstone is particularly successful in this aspect, melding point-of-view camera perspectives to whoever’s testimony forms the basis of that particular episode, while continuing to incorporate language like ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ into the dialogue used by the characters. The epistolary format of the adaptation, as with the novel, works to preserve Blake’s secret, and the eventual revelation requires the collection and articulation together of the various narratives: as Lady Verinder’s house-steward Betteredge puts it, ‘“I am forbidden to tell more in this narrative than I knew myself at the time. Or, to put it plainer, I am to keep strictly within the limits of my own experience, and am not to inform you of what other persons told me – for the very sufficient reason that you are to have the information from those persons themselves, first hand”’ (p.233). These testimonies work to Blake’s advantage in the novel, and he, as editor, interposes a “third-hand” narrative; numerous notes by Blake at the bottom of each character’s story prove that although Franklin as editor cannot alter the testimony itself, he is able to frame each text to influence how it might be perceived by readers.
The BBC’s Moonstone also plays delightfully with the problems of limited perspective narrative, such as Blake’s declaration that Rosanna means nothing to him, with the subsequent episode focusing on Rosanna revealing how she overheard the conversation. Miss Clack’s eavesdropping on Godfrey Ablewhite’s proposal to Rachel Verinder from behind a partition and her revelation of this to Cuff and Blake results in Clack attempting to listen to Bruff and Blake’s subsequent discussion next door using a tumbler. Her inability to hear what is said is a wonderful evocation of one of the key uses of perspective in the adaptation: as Clack cannot hear what is discussed from her point of view, the camera deserts her and switches to the scene taking place behind the door, keeping the viewer in the loop. In the episode focusing on Rosanna Spearman’s testimony, a close-up shot of Rosanna’s letter and memorandum open both the present and flashback action, while Blake’s voice and Rosanna’s voiceover are used to read the contents of the letter, replicating the impression of reading the novel. The BBC’s adaptation combines a scene which portrays Rosanna writing, while Rosanna’s voiceover reads what she writes, and impressions of what Rosanna is ‘recollecting’. For example, the voiceover describing meeting Blake on the sands for the first time is accompanied on screen by a flashback of that first meeting, mirroring Rosanna’s own perspective, the readers’ experiences of reading the novel, and Blake’s experience of reading the letter. Much of the episode employs a camera that represents Rosanna’s point of view, replicating the issues of perspective that the novel’s central mystery pivots upon, for both its characters and its readers. Other scenes from past episodes are replayed, given new and deeper meaning through the connections Rosanna’s narrative can make between them: the mystery of an earlier scene in which Rosanna is surprised in Blake’s bedroom is replayed on screen to reveal how Rosanna was replacing a rose brought by Rachel Verinder with roses of her own; Rosanna’s clunky delivery of tea is placed in the context of her eavesdropping outside the door, unbeknownst to Blake and thus unseen in the previous episode; the real meaning behind Rosanna’s claim that ‘“no-one will ever find who took the diamond”’ takes on new significance.
The series also effectively synthesises its use of voiceover to evoke narrative with its material equivalent, written text. The first three ‘live action’ scenes after this paper-based prologue use textual objects to progress plot: Blake receives a telegram to inform him of his father’s death; Rachel Verinder receives an invitation to Augustus Blake’s funeral; and a close-up shot of the card attached to a wreath informs the viewer that the scene they will shortly witness is the funeral of Augustus Blake. When Blake calls on the Verinder house to enquire why Rachel did not attend the funeral, he passes a letter to her maid Penelope, who passes a bundle of letters back to him: the television adaptation is just as obsessed with the ability for the multi-layered and the textual to convey information as Collins’s novel. When, on Rosanna’s instructions, Blake dredges the box she concealed in the Shivering Sands, the identity of the culprit is revealed through reading: on opening the box, the camera pans first to the shocked face of Franklin Blake, and then down to the nightgown hidden within, with ‘Franklin Blake’ stitched incriminatingly into its hem. Once the narrative has materialised it can be collected as evidence, for as Blake balefully says, the nightgown is ‘the witness against me: the paint on the nightgown and the name are facts’.
The series’ major success appears to be its clever interleaving of its source’s narrative form while using televisual techniques to adapt the experience of actually reading the novel. This approach works particularly well given the novel’s affinity for solving mystery through the interpretation of testimony and the collection of clues (many of which, like the name stitched into Rosanna’s nightgown, were textual as well as material). Bringing the viewer full circle, the final episode draws to a close with the same intertwining of narrative and materiality, returning to the paper puppet theatre. The narrator changes once more, and the camera zooms out from the paper puppet theatre to reveal that the opening voiceover was the child of Rachel Verinder and Franklin Blake, retelling the story of the moonstone (and, perhaps, The Moonstone) to the listening Betteredge, Jennings, Cuff and Bruff, a final example of the adaptation’s success in adapting narrative form, and the solving of mystery through narrative and materiality.