PBS Masterpiece and ITV have done a new adaption of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding. This four-part series, Tom Jones (2023), makes a few small changes to the novel, but is essentially the same story of a randy 18th-century lad of uncertain parentage who’s trying to make his way to his one true love.
It’s hard for me not to compare this adaption to the 1963 movie starring Albert Finney, since I grew up with that one and for all it’s faults-of-its-era, it’s just a ridiculously fun flick. Solly McLeod as the latest Tom Jones doesn’t have Finney’s roguish flair, the twinkle in his eye. This new Tom is naive and clueless, stumbling from one lady’s bed to another, whilst pining for his idealized Miss Western (Sophie Wilde). For all that this adaption was promoted as a rom-com, it’s not particularly funny or witty. The dialog is a bit flat, and only the baddie characters have any zip. Tom and Sophia, as the leads, are rather bland. This isn’t a horrible way to spend four hours (unlike certain gritty reboots or modernized classics), but I wanted more life, more pizzaz when the source material is pretty wild, raunchy, and laughably preposterous at times.
One moderately good thing about the script is how Sophia is changed to be a Black woman in this version. In the novel, she’s Squire Western’s daughter, and here she’s his granddaughter. His son had this child with an enslaved woman in Jamaica and freed her in his will; Sophia was sent to her grandfather as a six-year-old. While the Western family accepts her unreservedly, Sophia does experience racism from the larger society, although her wealth makes up for a lot. There’s a running theme that she wants to be free to make her own choices in life because her mother could not. This integrated casting makes sense and doesn’t feel either totally color-blind or heavy-handed.
Like the story, the costumes by Hazel Webb Crozier (who has mostly done contemporary TV) are just fine but not spectacular. On Masterpiece.com, Hannah Waddingham said of her Lady Bellaston costumes: “We’re meant to be set in 1769, so [what we wear] is all absolutely accurate, everything made to measure, every wig, every everything.” Of course, that’s just the actor’s point of view. The same promo reported that costume designer Hazel Webb Crozier studied 18th-c. art for as research and ordered Irish linen to use in the costumes. It was a fast-paced production, and Webb Crozier said: “We got it down to [making] about a dress every three days.”
The aesthetic seems to be “18th-century casual” for the leads because they’re “different” than typical folks of the period. The more authentic historical styles are reserved for the high-falutin’ and nastily-inclined characters. Thus, Tom never wears a cravat, his shirt and waistcoat hang open, and his hair is in a modern cut, while his nemesis Blifil (James Wilbraham) always wears a properly tied cravat with shirt and buttoned waistcoat and his hair is tied back in a queue.
In an interview with Salon, Solly McLeod referenced his character’s open shirt, admitting:
“It is yes, a lot of chest. We actually have to sew it up a little bit because there was too much, almost down to my belly button. There were scenes that we filmed — this is Northern Ireland in the winter — and with a flowy shirt I was like, ‘It’s cold today.’ But it was a comfortable costume, his general one. It was nice being natural. I think that’s what they wanted to do with Tom.”
Lady Bellaston (Hannah Waddingham) is the only woman in full upper-class 18th-c. dress with panniers and a high hairstyle, because she’s immoral and utterly wicked. Plus, the foppy lords she hangs out with are in fashionable suits, tall wigs, and tons of makeup — because they, too, are naughty creatures.
I guess the costume designer really liked button-front stomachers because Lady Bellaston wears them A LOT. It’s not an uncommon thing, as we’ve pointed out before, but I wonder if it’s supposed to mean “easy access” for this character? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, since mousey married Aunt Harriet (Tamzin Merchant) also has one button-front gown.
There’s no denying the meaning of Bellaston’s final gown — she wears bright red for “battle” when she tries to tear apart Tom and Sophia for good. Bad girls wear red on film, amirite?
Similarly, the suitor that Bellaston foists on Sophia, Lord Fellamar (Tom Durant Pritchard), is an over-the-top fop. Quite the opposite of “natural” Tom Jones.
Compare them with sweet, pure, upstanding Sophia, who wears gowns of quality (as noticed by various other characters) but in a more simple fashion.
And I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t nitpick this:
Plus, some of the extras had janky costumes, and this one kept searing my eyes every time it popped up, so I share the pain with you:
Have you watched the latest Tom Jones?
My love for the 1997 BBC version of Tom Jones endures — Samantha Morton, BRIAN BLESSED, Ron Cook, John Sessions, Frances de la Tour, Benjamin Whitrow, Kelly Reilly, and my introduction to how James D’Arcy could be both sexy and slimy.
I have not seen the 1997 version. Brian Blessed is the only actor I can imagine as a worthy heir to the fabulous Hugh Griffith, lolling among his dogs. This current version is a bit pallid–not very Fieldingesque.
BRIAN BLESSED, the only approved spelling.
In my opinion in the 1997-version the whole story of Mr. Western and his daughter makes a lot more sense. He adores his daughter because she is really beautiful and especially very good looking for the English taste of the 1740s and she is in more then one view his only treasure. Withrow and Blessed as completely different characters made a lot of sense to me. Samantha Morton is the perfect actress for her role. The only thing I missed in the 1997-version was the clear focus of Fielding on the political situation. Therefore I hoped that if we would need a new adaptation of that classical masterpiece which so perfectly highlighted even British culture for the period – we would have to include the dark side of Mr. Western and the system of powerfull landowners using the law to their own benefit and some of them even being Jacobites or at least some of them hating the Hanoverian monarchs.
All in all I think I prefer colorblind casting to inventing plots and subplots that don’t exist in the original.
Yuk! I hate every costume in these photos. Every one looks like a theater costume and is unconvincing. I mean, Lady Bellaston’s stuff looks like it’s made of the same fabric in different colors… and cheap. No engageantes or chemise, hoops showing, the red dress looked like it was too short so they added a ruffle at the bottom. Sophia fares better but again no real chemise, just fake ones sewn to the top of the bodice. No real engageantes but just some lace sewn to the sleeve bottom and in the oversized feather pattern dress (hate the fabric) just a bit of lace sewn to the cuff! The blue pattern dress is the best and she looks like she might have a real chemise under there somewhere, but they still faked it at the décolletage and sleeves. Funny, the dreadful extras have engageantes and chemises. Tom looks too modern. All the hair, wigs or real, sucks.
So there! 😠
Even with the zippers up the back and other 1960s things creeping in, the designs for the film are way better.
There are dressing scenes for Sophie & she’s wearing all the 18th-c. undergarments (smock, corset, bum pad, tied-on stockings), & likewise the sex scenes w/Lady Bellaston show she also has all the historical bits (smock, corset, hoops, tied-on stockings). I just didn’t screencap it!
In all fairness if any literary character is likely to swan around like a filthy casual, ‘tis young Tom Jones – he WAS born to be hanged, after all.
Also what the hi-di-hi is this nonsense about Ms. Tamzin Merchant playing a full-grown man’s aunt?
I’m just here to complain about the lack of hair pins! Seriously, 18th Century WOC wore their hair up, I assure you! I guess it’s the hair worn down equals young trope that I hate!
Sophie is the only woman who has her hair down & mostly when she’s agitated; it’s styled up the rest of the time. Oh I think Tom’s first lover has her hair down some, but also, they’re having sex so it makes sense.
I saw a screen shot of Tom Jones in a tricorne hat and it looked like a child’s hat. Much too small. I am recording the series, but have not watched it yet. Still recovering from “Marie-Antoinette.”
I thought the same. I’m looking in my streaming services to see the series nevertheless. Although I think that all the changes (not during the period of the Jacobite rebellion) and Sophia not Mr. Western’s daughter just make no sense to me and I ask myself why they used the “Tom Jones”-label at all if they didn’t like Fielding’s work. (But we know these attempts and at least in “Persuasion” I just could not watch more then 20 minutes of the extremely modernized version).
I’m deeply underwhellmed by Tom’s and Blifil’s costumes.
That pie-crust frill round Blifil’s shirt collar is a pointless invention, as are the sort-of petticoat-ruffles on his cravat-ends. Also, Vaselined hair scraped back into a ponytail does not a 1740s hairstyle make!
The only outright ‘WHYTF did you DO that?’ things about Tom are his hairstyle, as you say, and his shirt – any piece of body-linen dyed teal green is ludicrous. The rest of it is just made out of too-flimsy material – 18th-century wool for outdoor wear was much thicker and heavier than that. Also I have seen a picture of him on horseback in that outfit, and I swear he’s wearing modern synthetic tights: there’s not a wrinkle to be seen.
And I HATE Sophy’s hair. A respectable young lady would never go out of doors without something covering her head, let alone with her hair down. I don’t care how agitated you are, Sophy dear, it’s your fault for going out indecently dressed.
I am glad that you replied about Sophie’s hair. Last we spoke, you had so much to say about textured hair and the 18th century historically and also in historical fiction.
Thank you so much for adding your thoughts here, too!
Tom Jones changed my life. I read it after the very-very-very good 1997 version. For a shitty mother who looked to ‘the past’ to justify her actions (a fantasy and very racist, anti-sex, and hierarchical 19th century), a juicy and human 18th century novel was a huge mindset shift.
So I will be watching all Mother’s Day!
They can make Tom Jones a thousand times, and I will always go back to Albert Finney.
Hey, if anyone can understand that a casual fling is a casual thing it’s TOM JONES.