Adaptations and The Tontine

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I’m re-reading a novel by Thomas B. Costain called The Tontine. It’s one of those mid-twentieth century historical novels, a best-seller at the time and completely forgotten now. As is he. I always find it instructive to note how quickly best-sellers disappear from cultural memory. Some of his stuff is still in actual print, though.

Anyway, I’m fond of the book, although it is objectively terrible. This one has never been filmed, as far as I can tell, although four of his books were in the fifties and sixties. And it occurred to me, as it has fairly often in the past, that it seems to me much easier to make a good adaptation of a bad book than a good one. Since the book is mostly forgotten, and wasn’t good in the first place, you can just jettison anything that doesn’t work and put in stuff that would work better.

This novel is set over the course of the 19th Century, mostly focused on two prominent British families and people connected to them. At the start of the book, the partners in Grace and Carboy begin a feud, dissolving the partnership. Samuel Carboy becomes a powerful industrialist and banker; George Grace becomes a reform politician. We follow them and their children, and their grandchildren, and their servants and their families, and their children’s various associates and their families, etcetera etcetera. The sons travel. They all get involved in various historical events—the Bonapartist conspiracy, the Haitian revolt, Bolivar’s wars, trains, steamships. A really good or well-loved book would mean finding a way to film those specific scenes. Which might work… or might not. Maybe it would be better to get caught up in the Opium Wars! Or stuck in Bleeding Kansas. Or whatever. Fudge the dates however you want. No-one will have their favorite book ruined. Jettison all the dialogue, not just the racist part.

This is an instance of a general point that I have been on about for a while—remaking bad movies seems like a much better idea than remaking good ones. Adapting anything that is both really good and has passionate fans seems much more difficult. I’m not watching the Sandman adaptation, or the League of their Own series, or, you know, The Kite Runner on Broadway, but it seems like making something like The Tontine would just be a more sensible thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Adaptations and The Tontine

  1. vigorniensis

    “it seems like making something like The Tontine would just be a more sensible thing. ”
    I couldn’t agree more and, moreover, have thought so since first reading the book in 1961. I was then totally submerged in this story and, 62 years later, rereading it find it still a great story and difficult to put down.
    When one sees adaptions of vacuous stories like Downton Abbey given such regal treatment, it is difficult to see why this marvellous period of history has never moved a TV Production company to turn this story into a long-running series.


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