Pardon the long silence. I’ve got a post planned and another started, but today I want to ask a trivial but urgent question: why adapt Jamaica Inn? Specifically, why would you adapt Jamaica Inn for TV if you’re completely out of sympathy with the book, or (more charitably) believe your audience will be completely out of sympathy with it?
I’d never read any Daphne du Maurier (or wanted to), but I was a bit short of light reading when the BBC’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn loomed up in the schedules, so I read it over the weekend. It’s a good read, if not always a comfortable one. The first thing to say about it is that atmosphere is everything. From the first chapter the book sets up a very strong opposition between the determined but powerless virtue of the heroine Mary Yellan and the uncontrolled brutality of the huge, violent inn-keeper Joss Flynn; the sickening fear that Mary will be drawn into his power through no fault of her own, and will be broken by him, is set up even before the two have met. There’s a lot more in the book – the romantic fiction sub-plot revolving around the dominating and devil-may-care Jem (“I’ll … take you home to your aunt, but I’ll kiss you first, whether you like it or not”); the excursions into Mary Webb territory, with odd meditations on the pagan past and bursts of nature mysticism; the strange but apparently sympathetic figure of Francis Davey, albino intellectual vicar. But, like Davey’s paintings, it’s all coloured by a strange and compellingly doomy atmosphere, a sense of a virtuous and independent-minded heroine who is threatened with being destroyed and has no power to resist.
To say that somebody could be ‘destroyed’ is obviously figurative – and there is a persistent, unspecific sense that something very bad is likely to happen to Mary. But Du Maurier does something rather clever at this point: she has Joss threaten Mary quite specifically, both with physical violence and with rape, and then tell her that he won’t be carrying out the threat. The reasons he gives for staying his hand vary – at one point it’s because she knows to keep her mouth shut about what goes on at the inn, at another it’s because he likes her independent spirit; obviously, this gives Mary a deeply mixed message. He underlines the point by having Mary work in the bar – which comes to life once a week, in a hellish vision of (male) violence and dissolution – and then telling her that he was the only thing keeping her safe: “Because you’re my niece they’ve left you alone, my dear, but if you hadn’t had that honour – by God, there wouldn’t be much left of you now!” Joss has the delicacy of an abuser, working away to undermine his target’s independence and ensnare her in contradictions (he holds back because he respects her independence, but she’s only independent for as long as he holds back). He’s also a brute, in word and deed (“Now get out, and if you ever ask me a question again I’ll break every bone in your body”). He’s an extraordinary character, and not without a ghastly kind of pathos.
Joss’s violence threatens to destroy Mary not only as a romantic heroine but as an independent person (“I’ll break you until you eat out of my hand the same as your aunt yonder”). The cowed, neurotic figure of Aunt Patience is an object lesson for Mary – this is what she could be reduced to. Patience also provides Mary with a reason to stay at Jamaica Inn until such time as she can get her away – although it’s not clear, to Mary or to us, how she could ever manage this. The threat to Mary’s independence and self-respect is all-pervading; even Jem, whose male power is depicted as alluring rather than threatening, talks of sex in terms of destroying Mary’s individuality: “Do they make you different from other women, then, down on Helford river? Stay here with me tonight, Mary, and we can find out. You’d be like the rest by the time morning came, I’d take my oath on that.” Later in the book, when Mary narrowly escapes being raped and is bound and gagged by two different people, spending most of one crucial scene face down on a beach, the irruption of actual brutality doesn’t come as a surprise; it’s the breaking of a thundercloud which has been building up for two-thirds of the book.
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned smuggling – or the worse crimes of which Joss is also guilty, a darker secret lurking behind the relatively open secret of the wagons unloading at midnight. The smuggling is actually fairly incidental to the book: all that matters is that there’s something very bad going on at Jamaica Inn (something which everybody there can see but nobody must talk about), and behind that there’s something even worse (a dreadful secret, kept hidden behind a locked door). Joss is at the core of the book: first he’s set up as a monster of psychological abuse and physical brutality, then he’s depicted in his element, as the landlord of an inn which is only ever frequented by people equally grotesque. The smuggling is part manifestation of Joss’s monstrosity, part answer to the question “how does he make it pay?”.
It’s a very powerful book, but – it’s worth saying – it’s also a very odd book. Until the denouement opens the plot out a bit, only six named characters appear, Mary apart – and five of them are out-and-out grotesques. (The exception is Squire Bassat, the magistrate and sole local representative of law and order, who is at once distant, ineffectual and threatening: when he visits the inn in Joss’s absence, Mary finds herself lying to him, her desire to protect Aunt Patience pushing her further into complicity with Joss.) It’s a vivid study of brutality – psychological as well as physical – and of a certain kind of abjection, both of which are very strongly gendered: throughout the book Mary dreams of buying her own farm and working it alone, “like a man”. One way of understanding the book is perhaps to see it as a fantastic, almost fairy-tale meditation on the conditions for women’s independence in a male-built world – much more of a real possibility when Du Maurier was writing in 1935 than in the book’s early-nineteenth-century setting, but still far from being a problem that had been solved.
If you watched the first part of the BBC dramatisation last night, you won’t have seen very much of this at all. What you will have seen is this. (Italics = element not in the book.)
After her mother’s death, Mary Yellan leaves behind her childhood sweetheart Ned and travels to Jamaica Inn. At the coach’s final stop before crossing the moor, she leaves the coach and bumps into Jem Flynn, a handsome young horse thief. The coachman refuses to take her to Jamaica Inn, so she asks around until she find somebody who will. At Jamaica Inn, her aunt and uncle are not expecting her. Joss Merlyn, her aunt’s husband, is a relatively small and nondescript man with a powerful physical presence. “Is she tame or does she bite?” he asks rhetorically; Mary bites him. Her Aunt Patience is a faded beauty with a spirited and independent nature, although she admits to being frightened of Joss. She is actively involved in Joss’s smuggling operation and justifies it to Mary; Mary disapproves of smuggling because her father was killed by smugglers. Serving at the bar, Mary hears one of Joss’s customers, a man called Zeb, sing a dirty song under his breath while following her around the room; the man tries to rape her and is prevented by Joss. Later, Mary sees Joss murder a man called Abe, an associate who is suspected of informing on him; Joss is reluctant to kill the man, but does so on the instructions of a third man, who is hiding in the store cupboard. The following day, Joss, Patience and some associates make a trip to the coast (in daylight) to retrieve some merchandise which has been thrown overboard; Mary goes along and takes an active part in the salvage operation, hauling on a rope at the head of a group of men. Mary goes to the nearest town and looks for a constable, but is dismayed to find that the local constable is Zeb, the man who had tried to rape her. She finds herself in the local church, where she meets the Reverend Francis Davey, who has a pleasant manner and an unremarkable appearance; he lives with his sister Hannah (their housekeeper, Beth, is the girlfriend of William, the man who had arranged for the merchandise to be thrown overboard). The vicar is called away to speak to a parishioner whose husband Abe had not come home the previous night. On the way home Mary runs into Jem, who rescues her from a bog when she blunders into it…
Enough already. Really, it’s an adaptation in much the same sense that Fifty Shades is an adaptation of the Twilight books. The writer seems to have had a positive compulsion to change the book – altering everything from tiny details (Aunt Patience not having got Mary’s letter) to characters (spirited Patience, conscience-striken Joss, philanthropic Francis Davey). Entire scenes have been invented without regard to plausibility: it’s specifically stated in the book that smugglers don’t collect contraband mob-handed and in broad daylight; Mary, a Cornish native but a newcomer to Jamaica Inn, does have the sense not to wander into a bog but doesn’t know the way back to town. The adaptation even short-circuits a major plot point: the idea that Joss is taking orders from somebody else is floated a couple of times but never seems very believable; it is only confirmed that he had been taking orders when the identity of his boss is revealed, and (in the book) both revelations are equally shocking. (In the book, incidentally, Joss has sole responsibility for the murder; the victim is not a suspected informer but an unnamed man who wanted out of his partnership with Joss. Mary only has circumstantial evidence that the murder happened at all, and nobody else ever refers to it.)
The result is a dramatisation with too much plot, too many characters and too little atmosphere – and a disastrously misjudged reading of the character of Mary. In the book, Mary’s passivity is key to both her virtue and her weakness -attributes which in turn are central to her character: she stays behind the bar, she refuses to have anything to do with anything illegal, and when she does venture out of the inn she’s forever getting picked up by a man in a coach and ending up where he wants to take her. Mary striding through a landscape of thinly-drawn but vaguely believeable characters – instead of a gallery of brutal and mostly nameless grotesques – is bad enough, but the real problem with this adaptation is that it has Mary striding anywhere. The book is all about a helpless but virtuous woman who can only dream of being independent, and the men who – brutally and subtly, viciously and sympathetically – arrange her life around her so that she can never achieve that dream. Lose that and you’ve basically lost the book.
Update The second instalment was, if anything, even less faithful to the book: in the first quarter of an hour there was only one scene that came from the book at all (Mary confides in Francis Davey that bad things are happening at the inn), and even that was barely recognisable. Some of the set-piece scenes were there – Joss’s horrific account of wrecking, Mary’s meal with Jem, the trip to Launceston – but even here fidelity to the book was kept to a bare minimum. (“I thought you had a house,” said Mary to Jem as they sat outside his tent in the woods. You’re not the only one.) The revelation of the identity of the Big Bad, Joss’s unseen superior – a genuinely shocking moment in the book – was thrown away; a weirdly irrelevant sub-plot about Francis Davey running a soup-kitchen was bolted on, as well as a downright unbelievable sub-plot about Mary’s father having also been a smuggler. (Aunt Patience is Mary’s mother’s sister; Mary and her mother were from a completely different part of the county. The women in that family must just have had a thing for smugglers). Above all, the character of Mary rang false, over and over again – and in the same way. In the book, Mary didn’t respond to Joss’s confession with anger and defiance; she didn’t tell Jem to serve himself (in fact she cooked the meal herself, after sweeping up); she didn’t kiss Jem first; she didn’t agree to get a room with him; and she certainly didn’t dress in breeches for the trip to Launceston. (And when she was frocked up, it seems highly unlikely that she would have ridden astride.)
I suppose I can understand somebody reading Jamaica Inn and finding Mary a bit wet and domesticated, but at the end of the day it’s what’s on the page – and with good reason. You can’t replace Mary with an Independent Woman without losing any claim to historical accuracy, or – more importantly – without doing violence to the entire structure of the book.