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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?