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".

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