It is a truth universally acknowledged that a good or even mediocre novel can become a good, even great film, while it's almost impossible to transform a great novel into a great movie. The few exceptions prove that point--which has shown true once again with the recent three-part dramatization of Julian Barnes's Arthur & George on PBS. The author of almost 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, Barnes won Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2011 for his ruminative, compact novel The Sense of an Ending; six years earlier, Arthur & George was a finalist for that prize (as were his earlier novels England, England and Flaubert's Parrot).
If you're watching the miniseries but haven't read the exceptional novel on which it's based, you might be wondering about the title. Why give George equal weight when the focus is all on Arthur? Arthur & George, the teleplay, feels as if it began with a screenwriter's high-concept notion: What would happen if the creator of Sherlock Holmes tried to solve a real-life mystery?
You wouldn't guess it from the teleplay, which portrays Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a genteel action hero--the first episode ends with him chasing an interloper across a field on a moonless night--but Barnes's novel is based on true events. Not long after Sir Arthur's wife died, in 1906, a stranger sent him a pile of news clippings and a request. George Edalgi, an Anglo-Indian solicitor from the parish of Great Wyrley, some 130 miles from London, had been tried for a crime he did not commit, sentenced to seven years in prison, and recently freed after three. In "moral despair and practical limbo," he asked Sir Arthur to help clear his name. And Sir Arthur, in his own moral despair (he had been in love, though chastely, with another woman for years) and practical limbo (weary of the fictional detective whose fans won't let him write about anything else), agreed.
Barnes does a masterly job of telling the men's stories from childhood on, showing us their lives, thoughts, and actions in parallel histories as they inch forward to and beyond their first meeting, which takes place some 220 pages into an almost 400-page book. The novel toggles between sections on "George," then "Arthur," then "George" again. Occasionally, Barnes will focus on someone like "Campbell," the inspector in the terrible animal-mutilation case, or on "Arthur & George" (first meeting) or "George & Arthur" (second) when events relate to them both. Note: No one is burned alive in the novel.
The book opens, with "Arthur," like so: "A child wants to see. It always begins like this, and it began like this then. A child wants to see.... A door was there to be pushed; he walked in, stopped, looked.... What he saw there became his first memory." The next section, on the following page, begins with this: "George does not have a first memory, and by the time anyone suggests that it might be normal to have one, it is too late....[W]hile other children might make good the lack--might forcibly install a mother's doting face or a father's supporting arm in their memories--George does not."
The leisurely pacing, the level of detail, and the depth of imaginative writing make Barnes's Arthur & George unforgettable. One could never expect Arthur & George, the teleplay, to replicate this. Even so, it makes for a shallow production--enjoyable in its way but never believable, and the additions do not enrich it. It's hard not to picture the real Sir Arthur laughing at his manly, argumentative portrayal, and the real George Edalji wondering why we see more of his family than we do of him.
Better dramatizations often come from weaker novels, even novels based on beloved predecessors. Take Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James's 2011 homage to Pride and Prejudice. Set on the estate of Mr. Darcy six years after he and Elizabeth Bennet have wed, this conventional mystery--not one of James's best--disappointed many fans of Jane Austen by reflecting none of her wit and insight, social comedy and psychological astuteness. Watching the teleplay version of this mostly plot-based novel, you miss nothing in James's book.
The TV production of Arthur & George is also well acted, with wonderful sets, locations, and photography, so enjoy it for what it is. Just go out and read the novel, too.
Pamela Feinsilber is a San Francisco Bay Area book editor, writing coach, and writer with an avid interest in the arts. Formerly senior editor at San Francisco magazine, she edits fiction and nonfiction by both new and established writers, teaches occasionally, and leads a book group and conversation, Meet the Author, at Book Passage in Corte Madera.