Mendes beats Scorsese to Middlemarch movie

After 138 years, Eliot classic is finally brought to the big screen

It is a hefty tome of more than 800 pages, set in a fictitious town in the Midlands and written as a penetrating study of provincial life, religion and political reform.

However unlikely its credentials for a film adaptation, George Eliot's Middlemarch appears to be destined for Hollywood, more than a century after it was written.

And while Martin Scorsese has spoken before about how he would love to make a celluloid version of the novel, a crack team of period drama specialists appears to have beaten him to it.

The award-winning director Sam Mendes is developing the project, with the costume drama writer Andrew Davies to write the script.

Yesterday, Focus Features, the arthouse arm of the powerful Hollywood studio Universal, also came on board. Focus has made its name from the commercial and critical success of historical dramas including The Other Boleyn Girl, Pride and Prejudice and Gosford Park. The company is regarded as having a Midas touch for creating hits in the costume drama genre.

Eliot's 1871 classic has never been adapted for the big screen, perhaps due to the complexity of its storyline and enormous cast of characters. The project is likely to be an epic undertaking, with an immense budget.

The book, which is regarded as one of the finest in the English literary canon, comprises a series of interconnected stories and focuses on an idealistic young heroine, Dorothea Brooke. An actress is yet to be cast for the part.

Two years ago, Mendes expressed an ambition to direct the film, but his position is still to be confirmed.

Focus has signed a deal with Mendes's company, Neal Street Productions, to develop the story – about the changing fortunes of a provincial English community in the early 1830s – for an international audience.

Pippa Harris, who co-founded Neal Street Productions with Mendes and Caro Newling in 2003, said James Schamus, the head of Focus, had described Middlemarch as "one of his favourite novels".

"Period dramas are expensive to make and in these times when people are looking to budget, it's not the easiest of times," she said.

"Not every book set in the past suits being turned into a film, but I think Middlemarch lends itself well to adaptation. Focus Features have got a fantastic track record of doing classics and doing them extremely well."

Andrew Davies, who has won five Baftas for his TV adaptations of novels by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, has already adapted Middlemarch for a BBC TV mini-series. He has now finished writing the script for the film.

Michael Gubbins, a film consultant and former editor of Screen International magazine, said there was "a lot of interest in the air around costume dramas" following Bright Star, Jane Campion's period drama about the Romantic poet John Keats, which received almost unanimous praise at the Cannes Film Festival.

"It all depends on luck and timing, but with the combination of Sam Mendes, who has made period dramas before, Focus, which knows how to deal with them, and Davies', who knows how to write them, it could be a perfect one," he said.

Martin Scorsese expressed interest in an adaptation of Middlemarch in an interview with The Independent but said he had been somewhat deterred because it was "too long". He had read the novel while making The Departed.

Boyd Tonkin: A classic that has always merited a wider audience

When the author AS Byatt talks about English fiction on the Continent, she tries to alert her audience to the overlooked greatness of George Eliot. The novelist who subtitled her greatest work, Middlemarch, as a "study in provincial life", has since struggled against a provincial, insular, reputation.

Yet the taboo-busting author who began life in Warwickshire as Mary Ann Evans drew on a wave of European writers and thinkers as inspiration for her work.

Andrew Davies' BBC TV adaptation in 1994 won large audiences and awards but Middlemarch has never travelled as well as the near-contemporary works of Dickens. Eliot may have shunned intellectual provincialism – but she did dig deeper than any English novelist before her into the secret tumults and yearnings of everyday life.

Her reverence for the sacredness of ordinary acts and feelings enrich every chapter of Middlemarch, as the intertwined story of Dorothea Brooke, Dr Lydgate, the artist Will Ladislaw and the pitiable scholar Mr Casaubon slowly unfolds.

This mood scarcely makes for the narrative fireworks that adapters and producers often crave. For all that, Eliot's faith in the low-key virtues builds incrementally into one of the most moving conclusions to any literary classic, as she affirms that "the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs".

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor