Top 5 (Modern) Historical Fiction Adaptations

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I’ve mentioned here before that I read historical fiction — it’s one of my top three reading genres, along with historical biographies and travel fiction. A commenter suggested I talk some about historical fiction and that seemed like a good idea! So I’m going to count down my top 5 historical fiction adaptations that have made it to the screen. In future posts, I’ll talk about failed adaptations and also some novels that really deserve a screen treatment.

I’m sticking to “modern” books (i.e., published in the last 50 years). If I include classic novels, this list would be full of well-known titles like The Buccaneers and Vanity Fair, all of which are fabulous, but you are probably aware of them (yes, both were written decades after the era in which the story is set). I mean seriously, look through our “adapted from books” tag!

I’m also going to stick to things where I’ve read the book AND seen the movie/TV show, so that I can compare the two. (For example, I’ve never read Interview With the Vampire, so I can’t really say how well the movie stacks up against the book; leave that to Trystan.) So, your mileage may vary — give us your recommendations in the comments!

5. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

The Other Boleyn Girl is the only one of Philippa Gregory’s books that I can say I actually 1) enjoyed, 2) thought was decently written (seriously, the rest of her books are Total Shlock), and 3) have actually re-read. Voluntarily. It tells the story of Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall, all through the lens of her sister Mary, who was Henry VIII’s mistress before Anne came on the scene. Anne is an uber bitch, it’s true, but in some ways it works, because Gregory really gets the “I love you, but I’d be happy if you died” dynamic between sisters.

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In terms of adaptations, no, I’m not thinking of the 2008 feature film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson! Instead, I refer you to the 2003 BBC TV movie. Okay, so the costumes have some serious issues, including French hoods worn as headbands with the hair hanging long and free underneath. But if you can get past that, Natasha McElhone gives a very interesting performance as Mary. Instead of just being docile and mouth-breathy a la Scarlett Johansson, McElhone combines Mary’s sweetness with intelligence and knowing-when-to-keep-your-mouth-shut. Jodhi May is an interesting choice to play Anne. She’s a very talented actress who brings more nuance to the role than Portman. Also, May can be very attractive, but she’s not conventionally “pretty” or “sexy,” so you get a better understanding of Anne’s appeal being something other than her looks. And finally, Mary’s relationship with William Stafford is much more developed, and therefore much more emotional, than in the 2008 movie.

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL

Mary Boleyn

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Henry VIII walks with Anne Boleyn.

 

4. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

YOU GUYS. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THIS BOOK, DROP EVERYTHING YOU ARE DOING AND GO READ IT. I’M NOT KIDDING. I bugged our Sarah for about two years to read it, and she kept putting it off, and then she read it, and she was all “OMG PONIES!!” It. Is. So. Good. SO GOOD. I CAN’T EVEN EXPRESS HOW GOOD.

The book was written by Dodie Smith, who is famous for having written 101 Dalmatians and not much else. I Capture the Castle was apparently a classic in England (and I can see why), then went out of print for a long time.

Published in 1949, I Capture the Castle tells the story of Cassandra Mortmain. It’s the 1930s, and Cassandra is an intelligent and bookish girl who dreams of being a writer. Her father just happens to be a famous writer who wrote one landmark book and then has been stuck with writer’s block ever since. Her mother died when she was a child, and her father has remarried to a very artistic woman. Her older sister Rose is more conventional and deplores the genteel poverty in which the family live. And they live in a crumbling castle in the English countryside. Now, enter two young, handsome, rich American brothers who have come to stay nearby. You get love, heartache, growing up, and lots of twee British-ness that manages to be un-sappy. Yes, in some ways it’s a “young adult” book but trust me, it’s complex and rich and beautifully written and totally satisfying as an adult read.

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Nothing could ever be as good as the book, but the 2003 feature film comes about as close as you could. The talented Romola Garai plays Cassandra, and she perfectly captures the character’s intelligence, maturity, and naivete. Rose Byrne plays older sister Rose, and she nicely conveys the character’s shallow side while also making her understandable and relatable. Bill Nighy plays their father, and you can see both why Cassandra admires and pities him. The rest of the cast is great, too. The locations are gorgeous, the 1930s costumes are perfect (and span both shabby gentility and fabulous moneymoneymoney), and the movie really captures the wistful tone of the book.

GO READ THE BOOK. THEN WATCH THE MOVIE. I’LL WAIT HERE. The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is because the costumes aren’t as “historical” and therefore showy as some of the next titles.

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Cassandra, a girl after my own heart.

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Rose (on the right) all dolled up.

 

3. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Okay, so confession time: I read Outlander (and all of its sequels) in college, and it may be a large part of why I studied abroad in Scotland. I admit it.

If you’re alive and breathing these days, then you know that Outlander is the story of a World War II nurse who time-travels back to 1745 Scotland. She gets married and falls in love (in that order) and becomes enmeshed in the coming Jacobite Rebellion.

What’s so great about the books? No, they’re no To Kill a Mockingbird, but they are: 1) well written, with a story that keeps you page-turning, 2) realistically historical, with a nice sense of the period that’s heightened by Claire’s 20th-century perspective, and 3) hot, with a grown-up hero who’s quite swoon-worthy.

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But here we’re talking adaptations, and for all the quibbling about costume details or depictions of rape, the filmmakers are doing an amazing job at putting the novel on screen. No, it’s not 100% accurate to every page, but they are sticking with both the spirit of the books and the details of the story, rather than using them as a loose basis from which to embellish. You can tell that they love the books and are committed to putting them on screen as much as possible.

The casting is great — both Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan easily capture the essence of Claire and Jamie. As I mentioned, the storyline stays true to the books and remains as exciting and interesting. You still get the added bonus of learning to understand the 18th century from a 20th-century perspective, although they have lost a little bit of Claire’s humorous internal dialogue. And it’s Scotland porn, baby, with shots of castles and heather and kilts and rain and more.

Next season, they’re off to Louis XV’s Versailles, and I am afraid for them. The second book focuses on the growing Jacobite rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie, much of which centered around the French court (England’s enemy). So far just a few images have come out, and so far so mostly good, but doing 18th-century Versailles is probably the most expensive thing in the world, costume- and set-wise. Interviews with the cast and crew have told us that they’re having to create all of season 2’s costumes from scratch, and while season 1’s costumes were done even more quickly, it’s still a tall order. My fingers are crossed for them! So long as they keep to the essence of the books, I’m going to be along for the ride.

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Season 1 was all about Scotland.

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A first glimpse at French-set season 2.

 

2. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

So this one is kind of a cheat, because I actually only read about 20 pages of the book before giving up. As I wrote in my short review, I found it ponderous and wordy — “I mean, how many descriptions of a prostitute with eczema can one read?” So then it really says something that I really enjoyed the TV miniseries adaptation!

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Romola Garai plays Sugar, an 1870s (or 80s)-era London prostitute. She’s an odd duck — unconventional looking, eczema, but she’s got something that inexplicably brings all the boys to the yard. She meets up with a respectable middle-class (married) guy who becomes obsessed with her. First, he sets her up in her own apartment, then brings her into his own household as nanny to his daughter — where she becomes enmeshed in the weird dynamic he has going with his wife, who has been totally sheltered from everything and therefore has Serious Issues about sex and reproduction and anything Down There.

What’s great about the miniseries is: 1) Romola Garai, who perfectly captures Sugar’s oddity and simultaneous appeal, 2) the gritty view of London, 3) Gillian Anderson is SMASHING as Sugar’s madam, 4) the weird and complex character relationships, and 5) the beautifully done costuming that has some weird-but-cool elements (like Sugar’s bustle gown with applique wings on the back).

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Sugar: not your conventional prostitute.

The wings on Sugar's dress are just one weirdly cool design element.

The wings on Sugar’s dress are just one weirdly cool design element.

Gillian Anderson, creepy and fabulous as the madam.

Gillian Anderson, creepy and fabulous as the madam.

 

1. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Sarah Water is an amazingly talented writer who focuses on historical stories (so far, both 19th- and 20th-century-set) that feature lesbians — but they’re not “lesbian stories,” if that’s a thing. They’re damn good historical fiction. Tipping the Velvet is my favorite — it’s the story of Nan, who lives in small town England in the 1870s. By chance she meets Kitty, a music hall actress whose gig involves cross-dressing, and Nan becomes enraptured. She follows Kitty to London, where Nan simultaneously discovers her sexuality and that she too has stage talent — and then the plot thickens. It’s a total page-turner that delves into the world of music hall theater and London’s lesbian underworld, managing to be both amusing and touching all at the same time.

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The BBC mini-series adaptation stars Rachael Stirling as Nan and Keeley Hawes as Kitty, with Andrew Davies adapting the screenplay (Davies has written many of the popular BBC period adaptations, including the 1995 Pride and Prejudice). With a few minor exceptions the miniseries follows the book faithfully, and we join Nan on her journey from small-town oyster girl to the stage and beyond, all the while experiencing the joy of discovering love and also its heartbreaks.

The costuming is particularly fabulous, with a lot of super cute girls-dressed-as-boys and some nice bustle gowns mixed in as well.

The adaptation doesn’t shy away from the story’s more sexual side, although they manage to make it fun and sexy without being smutty. There is, however, a leather dildo, so if that kind of thing makes you hide under the covers, be forewarned.

Anyway, the story is fun and absorbing and the glimpses of the worlds of the theater and the underground lesbian community are just fabulous. And you’ll enjoy watching Nan discover her hidden talents and what she really wants out of life!

Nice bustle gowns!

Nice bustle gowns!

Nan and Kitty, two gents about town.

Nan and Kitty, two gents about town.

What did you think of these five productions? Which historical fiction books and their adaptations do you recommend?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

12 Responses

  1. Michael L. McQuown

    The one series I really want to see done is Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicle, which consists of six novels about a 16th-century Border lord who goes from Scotland to France to the Middle East to Russia and back for the love of a young Englishwoman. Neither Francis Crawford nor Phillipa Sommerville are run-of-the-mill, being ferociously bright, independent, and sharing a love of music. In the process of all this there is plenty of action, drama, violence, sex, and a panorama of historical characters that send one back to the history books. Featured characters include Ivan the Terrible, the Knights Hospitaller, Roxalana Sultan, and Nicolas de Nicolay.

    Reply
  2. Trystan L. Bass

    And here’s where I disagree with Kendra about the Other Boleyn Girl, at least in the adaptions — I also really liked the book & read it several times, but I thought Natalie Portman made for an excellent Anne in the 2008 movie, capturing the desperate ‘I’m dancing as fast as I can’ feel that Gregory gave her. The other movie felt flat (tho’ yeah, Mary wasn’t as dopey as ScarJo).

    Also, I have reservations about the screen version of Tipping the Velvet. It’s decent but it feels lightweight, more of a rom-com than the book. There were more emotional ups & downs in the book that felt glossed over in the BBC version.

    Yeah, I’m a nitpicky reader!

    Reply
  3. amyaosterholm

    Lymond! Yessssss.
    And I Capture the Castle has been one of my very fave books since HS.In fact, it may be time for a reread.
    Sounds like I’ll have to try Tipping the Velvet, both book and screen.

    Reply
  4. LindaS

    Thanks for these recommendations. I added Tipping the Velvet and The Crimson Petal and the White to my Netflix list. I’m probably going to order I Capture the Castle for my Kindle. This blog is a treasure-trove of wonderful suggestions. I’ve just been indulging in adaptation/book viewing/reading of Jane Austen novels. Love Outlander!

    Reply
  5. Sarah

    I read the Lymond saga when I unwisely decided to read upon recommendation of a friend while in law school (all of which might account for why I know a lot of Scottish aristocratic politics but not a lot about say contracts). I love love love them they are bit too much to take all one time as collective reread but I try to read at one or two each year. The lead still makes me swoon and I wish I had Phillipa as my BFF. In any event, I would eat a kitten for a high class well done BBC production. I really want Judi Dench as Sybilla

    Reply
    • Michael L. McQuown

      Dme Judi as Sybilla? Sounds good. I think casting may have been the sticking point for this series. Francis is really difficult because as described, he’s almost effeminately good-looking (a particular point when Marthe, his illegitimate sister, is introduced — they have essentially the same face). My ex had suggested someone like David Bowie, who would now be way too old. Also, Francis is just out of his teens at the beginning, which would require a young actor to carry a huge load. Also, Francis often seems anti-heroic as he does things for his own reasons; eventually, they come out right, but this leaves room for much misunderstanding. Maybe he’s just too complex for film/TV.

      Reply
  6. Donna

    I get the impression that all of these are romances … is that right? I hate romance as a genre. It is fine as a plot device or a sub-plot, but I can’t see building a whole plot around it. So, can we have one of these historical adaptation recommendation lists that *isn’t* romance-centric?

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Hmmm. I wouldn’t say they are ALL romances, as in “the romance is the overall point of the thing and everything else is secondary.” In fact, Outlander is probably the only one where the romance is the main thread. In the rest, yes, romance is there, but that’s not what the story is really ABOUT.

      Reply
    • Sahrye

      I’ve read all of these books and I wouldn’t classify any of them as what would be described as “romance” as a genre except maybe Outlander. I actually adore modern historical romance novels so I’ve read a lot of those and have a basis for comparison. The books in this list have strong romantic themes, which are closely built around the central characters, but don’t necessarily have the characteristic will they-or-won’t they and happily-ever-after that sort of defines the “romance” genre. In particular the Crimson Petal and the White was not very romantic in the conventional sense but it has definitely stuck with me.

      Reply

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