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Hayley Atwell Shines In A New Adaptation Of 'Howards End'

Hayley Atwell stars in the adaptation of <em>Howards End </em>that begins Sunday night on Starz.
Kurt Iswarienko
Hayley Atwell stars in the adaptation of Howards End that begins Sunday night on Starz.

The E.M. Forster novel Howards End was successfully adapted in 1992 by Merchant Ivory, and it won Emma Thompson an Oscar. There are people who would argue that it's all the adaptation the book will ever need.

That's why it's important that the 2017 miniseries, which first aired on the BBC but premiered on Starz Sunday night, makes a strong case for itself. Playwright Kenneth Lonergan, known to American film audiences for thoughtful pieces like Manchester By The Sea and You Can Count On Me, wrote the screenplay, and Hettie Macdonald, who directed Beautiful Thing and several episodes of Doctor Who, directed this series as well. The cast includes Hayley Atwell in Thompson's role of Margaret Schlegel; Matthew Macfadyen, who played Mr. Darcy opposite Keira Knightley in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice, as Henry Wilcox; Julia Ormond as the first Mrs. Wilcox; and Tracey Ullman, who as Aunt Juley has a warm and funny take on the dotty aunt beloved in so many novels.

Howards End is a story about class and morality and how they operate in three families. The families are in turn very rich and flashy (the Wilcoxes), comfortable and intellectual (the Schlegels), and working class on the edge of true poverty (the Basts). When the Wilcoxes and Schlegels become entangled with each other and then with the Basts, it falls to Margaret to ground a story that concerns itself in large part with how people treat each other, not personally but sociologically.

Some of the issues of class here were hinted at in the resentments of Downton Abbey, of course; there's a good reason the cast included both the wealthy family and the servants it employed. But the questions it was asking were always translated through intensely personal relationships, and the question was rarely how to treat those you employ on principle. It was usually how to treat a particular loyal friend whose profound back story you know and who just happens to also be wholly dependent on you for his livelihood.

Howards End happens at more of a remove, and Forster declines to linger over the intense emotions of anyone. What happens in the last page or two, for instance, would be the entire last act of many films. The primary concern of the book and the series is the way the very rich Wilcoxes are insulated from the direct consequences of their actions, and how Margaret's sister Helen (Philippa Coulthard) is affected by her sister's closeness with the Wilcoxes and a certain pity she indulges for the Basts. The story asks what become very much the foundational questions of a society: What do we owe each other? Of what use is pity to the poor? Should a rich man be as accountable for his wrongdoing as a poor one? And: what kind of a system of public morality allows an extraordinarily wealthy man to push aside his own sins while railing against the failings of others?

Howards End also belongs to a breed of stories — written by everyone from Jane Austen to Forster to Louisa May Alcott — about families in which women have independence in their personalities but have been born into circumstances that limit their choices. Atwell imbues Margaret with such intelligence and spark that it's jarring when the husband she loves takes it upon himself to dictate her living situation without consulting her. While Atwell's reactions and Macfadyen's pomposity are both played for some comedy, this really is their arrangement. She really does not have a choice.

Atwell is the not-so-uncommon crossover actor whose talents extend to both elegant period dramas and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where she plays Peggy Carter. Others include Anthony Hopkins, who played Henry Wilcox in 1992 and is also Thor's father. She took the character of Peggy to television in Agent Carter, which only lasted 18 episodes on ABC, but was deeply beloved by its fans, not least for her sharp, stylish portrayal. Here, she tackles the tricky character of Margaret, who must — as in the novel — spend most of the story not knowing a critical fact about her own history and then learn it in the very closing moments. Howards End has at its narrative core, though perhaps not its thematic one, a betrayal that Forster sets out and then largely leaves behind, and it has the potential to make Margaret seem passive.

But one of Atwell's strengths is that understated comic sense — she does share some characteristics with Emma Thompson — and Margaret's knowing exasperation with some of her circumstances does a lot to build confidence in her as a character. Atwell's Margaret is such a compelling character that if there's a flaw in the structure of the series, it might be that not enough of it remains with her, even though she's often centered in the frame both coming and going, and she controls every scene she's in.

Did they really need to make this adaptation? Probably not. But they don't need to adapt books into films to begin with. The hope is that you gain something with every new angle on a work like this, particularly when the format changes somewhat and the people working on it are good at what they do.

The extra space available in a four-hour miniseries, compared to a two-plus-hour film, isn't enough to fully change the structure of the piece. It is, however, enough to allow things to proceed at a gentler pace. For example, the opening sequence, in which Helen gets engaged and then rapidly unengaged to Paul Wilcox, goes by in a blink in the 1992 film, because it doesn't mean that much other than affording an opportunity for the Schlegel and Wilcox families to meet. But given a few hours to work with, Lonergan and Macdonald craft a more thorough introduction to these families and the way this brief engagement disrupts them.

It may be more useful to wonder whether an adaptation is cynical than to wonder whether it's unnecessary. It would be one thing if this were a remake of Fatal Attraction that was being made for the headlines. But did the BBC really remake Howards End to exploit cheap public hunger for the work of E.M. Forster? Did it bring in Kenneth Lonergan to be a big-name screenwriter the way they sometimes stunt cast Broadway productions of Grease and Chicago? It's hard to conclude that's the motivation. It's hard to think that of the BBC, or of Starz.

In fact, it's folly to guess at the motivations of cable networks over what they decide to air, but it may be that Starz concluded that if you took the intense interest in Downton Abbey (which was set slightly later) and the swooning passion for Outlander (which takes place ... well, both earlier and later), there was a place in premium television for a show that might be expected to turn up on PBS instead. If we are entering an age in which premium cable makes room for a wider variety of dramas in which a wider variety of themes can emerge, that will be a blessing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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