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Miss Jean Brodie, Triumphant
on March 3, 2013
The 1978, seven-part Scottish Television adaption of Muriel Spark's classic short novel, 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,' is a remarkable in that more than half, and perhaps as much as three-fifths, of the material presented doesn't appear in the novel at all. Thus, the serial adaptation is actually a very broad fantasia upon the novel's plot, theme, and narrative, something most admirers of the book are unlikely to anticipate.
Spark's multifaceted and deceptively simple novel, which was published to worldwide acclaim in 1961, was adapted for the theater in the 1960s by Jay Presson Allen; the play then became a success on the London stage with Vanessa Redgrave and on Broadway with Zoe Caldwell in the title role.
Allen's literal but dramatic adaption altered or dropped many parts of Spark's novel, while bringing other elements to the forefront and, unlike the book, presented its story in strictly chronological fashion.
Allen then adapted her own play for the rousing 1969 film version, which was directed by Ronald Neame and which starred Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie. Smith won a richly deserved Academy Award for Best Actress for her volcanic performance, which heightened the profile of an already critically and commercially successful film.
It was with this complex checkered history behind it that the Scottish Television adaptation of 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' (1978, 2013) was produced, with Geraldine McEwan at its helm.
The series used both Spark's novel and Allen's play as sources, and was written by four writers, including Alick Rowe and Anne Stanley; the seemingly omnipresent Jay Presson Allen acted officially as "story consultant" on the project.
The Scottish Television serial is interesting on many levels; McEwan's Miss Brodie, for example, is a far more self-aware creature than Smith's Miss Brodie, and constantly wears an expression that is both sardonic and quizzical, one she freely offers to everyone around her, including her suspicious superiors at the private school in which she teaches.
Though the novel included six notorious "Brodie girls," their teacher's favorite pupils (and eventual confederates), the Allen play and screenplay reduced the number to four (and conflated troubled Mary McGregor with Joyce Emily Hammond), but the serial adaptation further reduces the number to two, Sandy Stranger and Jenny Grey, leaving gopherish Mary McGregor strictly on the sidelines until the final episode.
A third favorite, Rose Stanley, emerges as the serial progresses, and eventually two more girls, Dorothy and Juliet, emerge to take the place of Eunice Gardener and Monica Douglas, who haven't appeared in any version except the novel. Like Eunice and Monica, Dorothy and Juliet have talents in gymnastics and math. So the question arises: why didn't the writers simply name use the names Eunice and Monica?
Almost an entire 51-minute episode addresses Miss Brodie's attachment to new student Giulia Cibelli, the daughter of an Italian journalist who has sought political asylum in Scotland, fleeing as he has Miss Brodie's hero, Benito Mussolini. The episode is an interesting and imaginative, and seems true to the spirit of Spark's intentions, especially since it allows for a more thorough exploration of Miss Brodie's political thinking; but Giulia and her father do not appear in the novel at all.
The serial's initial episode also daringly invents a 50-minute 'backstory' for Miss Brodie before she becomes employed at the Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh, where the balance of the story--and all of the novel--takes place.
Another episode of entirely new material develops of the novel's theme of budding female sexuality, here via Miss Brodie's cultivation of previously-overlooked pupil Rose Stanley. The audience is introduced to Rose's father, aunt, and two rather odious male cousins when Rose invites Sandy and Jenny over to her home for an afternoon, an invitation which fills the girls with apprehension, as neither is used to the company of teenage boys.
In the novel, Miss Brodie displaces her romantic passion for married art master Teddy Lloyd onto bachelor choirmaster Gordan Lowther, both of whom are also instructors at the conservative Marcia Blaine School, a critical plot thread which Allen exploited in both her adaptions. But Gordan Lowther is missing altogether from the Scottish Television serial, and Teddy Lloyd, like Mary McGregor, has been reduced to an incidental character. Here, there is no actual romance between Miss Brodie and Teddy Lloyd whatsoever, only a rather muted crush on Lloyd's part, who is as frustrated by the lack of artistic ambition among his pupils as he is with his coy fellow instructor's lack of interest in him.
Though one of the major themes of the novel, the play and the Neame film is the attempted suppression of the independent individualist by society's conformist members, the Scottish Television skirts the theme and dances around it, but never quite confronts it head-on.
Another key element of the novel is the betrayal of Miss Brodie by one of her own favored pupils, a betrayal which brings about Miss Brodie's downfall, a matter which Allen also made great dramatic hay of in both her play and screenplay. But the Scottish Television serial not only dispenses with the act of betrayal, but with Miss Brodie's downfall altogether.
Frustratingly, the serial doesn't wind up or resolve any of its many themes, either in or out of Miss Brodie's favor; it simply stops abruptly after the seventh episode, leaving the audience a little empty and wishing for rather more. Last seen, Miss Brodie is still employed and smiling mysteriously, undefeated.
Thus, the Scottish Television serial is far kinder to and more supportive of Miss Jean Brodie and her future than the book, play, and 1969 film are.
In the novel, 'Sandy Stranger,' her teacher's closest ally among "the Brodie girls," who betrays her instructor to the Marcia Blaine administration, is presented in almost as mysterious a fashion as Miss Brodie is herself.
Later in life, in the original text, Sandy becomes a cloistered nun who "clutches the bars of the grille" behind which she has guiltily imprisoned herself when visitors come to speak to her. A sad and permanent penitent, Sandy, as Sister Helena, lives out the balance of her existence in literal darkness.
In the 1969 film, Sandy (Pamela Franklin) is depicted as an oddball outsider who doesn't realize that her insider status is temporary, and who, as she matures, becomes a willful and envious rival of Miss Brodie's for Teddy Lloyd's erotic attention, a rivalry of which Miss Brodie is wholly unaware until the film's unforgettable final scene.
However, the serial adaptation presents Sandy as a pretty girl who is 'normal' in every way, and who reveals only slight pangs of envy when best friend Jenny is invited without her to Giulia's home. Nothing is presented to suggest that Sandy will ever betray Miss Brodie or become Teddy Lloyd's lover. Thus, the serial is far kinder to young Sandy as well.
McEwan gives an original, distinguished and dexterous performance as Miss Brody, and the entire serial is hauntingly scored by American composer Marvin Hamlisch.