As the BBC’s long-awaited Pursuit of Love divided the nation, here are some of the greatest novel-to-TV adaptations of all time.

Few people have lukewarm feelings about Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, the novel she published in 1945. Her fans just adore it; if ever you spy a copy on a bookshelf, it is bound to be falling apart at the spine. So the BBC’s new adaptation, starring Lily James and Dominic West, was always going to be controversial. Some consider it a crashing disappointment. Others are going with the flow. Amid sumptuous scenery and pitch-perfect clothes, Dominic West plays a memorable Uncle Matthew, Lily James a giggly Linda Radlett and Andrew Scott an exquisite Lord Merlin.

Television adaptions of much loved books almost always polarise their viewers. Here are some of the best.

Brideshead Revisited

When this award-winning dramatization of Evelyn Waugh’s novel aired in 1981, it made couch potatoes out of the whole nation. The Telegraph has described it as ‘television’s greatest literary adaptation, bar none. It’s utterly faithful to Evelyn Waugh’s novel yet it’s somehow more than that, too.’ It charts the life, loves and heart-wrenching woes of Charles Ryder and his glamorous, troubled friend Sebastian Flyte, starting in the 1920s and ending in the 1940s. Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick, John Gielgud, Anthony Andrews and Laurence Olivier: all are a delight. Watch it here.

Pride & Prejudice

If you were studying for your GCSEs in 1995 when this belter came out, or shortly afterwards, you won the lottery. No teacher could resist showing its six episodes in the classroom as part of the curriculum. Was it the sumptuous sets? Was it Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and his iconic wet shirt? Was it Dinah Collin’s beautifully researched costumes? Was it Andrew Davies’s screenplay? All of these things did such unending justice to Jane Austen’s 1813 novel that the TV series deserves every award it got. Watch it here.

Wolf Hall

The worst thing about this dramatization of two of Hilary Mantel’s best-loved novels (Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies) is that it consists of only six episodes. Mark Rylance is at his very best as Thomas Cromwell, whose rapid rise to power in the court of Henry VIII it documents. A reported £7 million was spent on the exquisitely acted and directed historical drama. Hilary Mantel called the screenplay – written by Peter Straughan – ‘a miracle of elegant compression’. We can but wait with baited breath for the adaptation of The Mirror and the Light, the final book in her trilogy. Watch it here.

The Forsyte Saga

This TV series, which beamed into our sitting rooms in 2002, put the great Damian Lewis on the map for many. Also featuring Rupert Graves and Gina McKee, it chronicles the lives of three generations of a British upper-middle-class family from the 1870s to the 1920s. It perfectly evokes the Nobel Prize-winning trilogy by John Galsworthy from which it is adapted, with all of its love and loss, materialism and mansions. The New York Times called it ‘the bodice ripper which started it all’. It is well worth a revisit. Watch it here.

Big Little Lies

Everything that Liane Moriarty writes seems sort of sunbathed, glossy and a pleasure to read. Big Little Lies, which was published in 2014, is no exception – though it has a very dark underbelly. The TV series – with star turns from Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern – is brilliant at weaving together the gloss and the grit. Never has there been a better reminder that shiny exteriors can conceal all manner of ugliness. An adaptation of another of Moriarty’s novels, Nine Perfect Strangers, is coming later this year. Also starring Nicole Kidman, it promises to be a corker. Watch it here.

The Handmaid’s Tale

People loved Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale so much when it was published in 1985 that the producers of the ensuing TV series had their work cut out for them. Four seasons later, the dystopian drama, set in a totalitarian state in New England, has won several Emmy Awards. Slick, provocative and disturbing, it is seriously addictive TV. The Guardian said of it that ‘no television event has hit such a nerve’. Watch it here.

Olive Kitteredge

Whisper it. This adaptation – starring the ever-brilliant Frances McDormand – is so classy and so faithful to Elizabeth Strout’s book that if you haven’t yet read it, you don’t really need to. (The novel did win a Pulitzer Prize, though, so you won’t regret it if you take the plunge.) Detailing the life and times of a cross, retired schoolteacher and her long-suffering husband in a fictional town in Maine, it is a stunning look at the human condition in all its complexity. Watch it here.

By Becky Ladenburg
June 2021


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Becky Ladenburg

Features Editor

As the GWG's features editor, Becky has her discerning finger on the cultural pulse. She's also our go-to expert on the property market.