Placing a Red Bow on Downton Abbey

Why Some Stories Don’t Need a Reboot

“So,” I said, turning to my friend as the credits rolled up the movie screen. “Did you like it?”

Lady Mary cThe “it” I was referring to, was the movie adaptation of Downton Abbey, the British TV series broadcast as part of PBS Masterpiece Theatre. The series ran for six years, following the lives of an aristocratic family and their domestic servants. It was standard Masterpiece fare, character-driven and rich in visuals and dialogue along with being a guilty pleasure. Think, The Crown meets The Young & the Restless.

My friend’s reply was typical Lady Mary. “It wasn’t great, but good enough. It felt like a longer version of one more episode.” My friend and I were a good dichotomy for the typical target audience for Downton Abbey. While she was a loyal royal watcher from the beginning, I came along late in the game, with a hard-binge of six seasons on Amazon Prime. Knowing its audience, the movie trailer didn’t pretend to market itself as a vehicle for anyone who wasn’t already a fan of the TV series.

But should Good enough be an acceptable review? Why is it that movies seldom capture the essence of that unique story that catches fire with readers and viewers? Too often, the magic of a carefully drawn-out story just doesn’t lend itself to the 2-hour adaptation on the movie screen.

Let’s look at another story that caught fire several years ago, when journalist, Jeanette Walls wrote of her life, in the memoir, The Glass Castle. This book spent over 260 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, and it’s hard to find a book club that didn’t devour this classic, or a reader who didn’t bond with the story on some level. Yet, when the movie version of The Glass Castle finally debuted, starring a strong cast consisting of Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts, the story fell flat, perhaps suffering from having to leave too much heart on the editing floor.

Sometimes, we should leave the best stories in their original packaging. It is a rare instance when the written word transfers so eloquently to the movie screen. To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. But more often, the result resembles my feelings when turning off the TV after viewing El Camino on Netflix, a movie picking up immediately after the last scene in the incredibly rewarding last episode of Breaking Bad. While it was nice to see Jessie, our anti-hero again, did we need to revisit what was already the best ending ever for any TV series?

And yet, it can certainly be argued that the best movies come from successful screenplays. Local author, Bonnie Jo Campbell has been touring the country as the film adaptation of her novel, Once Upon a River makes an appearance at many film festivals. We can only hope it pays a visit soon to our area.

Here’s a thought… maybe some endings are best left alone, even if it was nice catching up with the Crawleys and the downstairs staff in Downton Abbey. I wonder what the gang from Mad Men has been up to?

Heidi McCrary is a writer and a regular contributor to Women’s LifeStyle.
Look for her debut novel, Chasing North Star in September 2020. Follow Heidi at https://heidimccrary.net/ and https://www.facebook.com/HeidiMcCraryAuthor

GO SET A WATCHMAN Review “What if Scout had worn pink?”

Watchman photo

It should come as no surprise to the legions of fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, that on Tuesday, July 14, the much talked about, controversial follow-up, Go Set a Watchman, set sales records in its opening day at Barnes & Noble. Discussions prior to its release centered around the notion that this “new” novel is actually an initial draft of what eventually became known to the world as To Kill a Mockingbird. Many fans have doubts as to whether author, Harper Lee, really wanted to have this early edition released – brushing off the idea that Watchman is truly discovered lost treasure and a gift to the literary world, and more likely a cocktail of half-baked stories served up by HarperCollins Publishers in order to cash in on the Harper Lee hysteria.

But while others may struggle with the legitimacy of Go Set a Watchman, I am comfortable with what it is…an interesting character-study and a chance for us to catch a glimpse into Lee’s vision of the woman Scout grew into and the path she followed. While Watchman is not literary gold, it offers us the chance to “see” what the future held for Scout, and I am thrilled that Jean Louise (Scout’s grownup name) didn’t grow up to be a “proper lady.”

If we are to believe the publisher, as Go Set a Watchman turned into To Kill a Mockingbird, it could have been so easy for Lee to have taken a different turn – away from the tomboy that young girls could identify with and say, “she’s just like me,” and away from the free spirit that women everywhere could embrace as a literary mirror into the soul of their childhood, or at least a childhood that we could imagine. Instead, Lee sharpened her pencil and sharpened the story that became our nation’s most loved novel.

During the writing process, thank God no one asked Lee, “Umm…could you throw a dress on Scout? We don’t want readers to think that she’s a boy.” Thankfully, no one instructed Lee to tone her down and “lose the overalls.” And if they did, thankfully, she didn’t listen. When reading Go Set a Watchman, one needs to see it for what it is – an entertaining and promising first draft that was only the beginning of a greater journey, and a delightful sneak peek into what became of Scout. As she grew into Jean Louise, she may have lost the overalls but her free spirit remained delightfully intact.

And thank God, no one asked Harper Lee, “Can you make Scout’s overalls pink?”

By Heidi McCrary, Writer & Advertising Goddess

@heidimmcrary