TELEVISION / A PAIN IN THE ARTS

Robert Hanks on sexing-up classic novels

Last week in the Daily Mail, Paul Johnson fulminated - this is something he does quite a lot - against the modern habit of injecting sex into classics to make them palatable for a television audience. The occasion of this rant was the news that a BBC dramatisation of Edith Wharton's The Buccaneer will add a rape scene and turn one of the central characters into a homosexual. "Rape and homosexuality are now virtually compulsory in anything issuing from TV drama departments," Johnson said. Poking some sex into the classics is nothing new - in the last year we've had bedroom scenes in Middlemarch and the promise of Darcy getting his kit off in Pride and Prejudice. There are several justifications that can be offered for putting sex in: thatyou need it in order to appeal to a modern audience, that TV is more coarse and visual than a novel, and - the defence offered for Middlemarch - that the author would have done it if convention had permitted.

Complaints that the classics are oversexed are also nothing new. Again, there are several arguments: that television tries to put sex in everywhere, that great works of literature should be allowed to stand on their own merits, and - Johnson's complaint about The Buccaneer - that if the author had wanted sex scenes, she could have added them herself.

What's interesting, and infuriating, is that in adopting contrary positions, the two sides of the quarrel make the same mistake, projecting the attitudes of the 20th century on to the 19th. Of course Wharton or George Eliot could never have chosen to include explicit sex scenes - omitting them wasn't an artistic decision, as Johnson suggests. But don't pretend that by adding raunch you are decoding the novel; what you're actually doing is pretending it's a modern work of art, and so stripping it of muchof what makes it valuable.

In other words, let's leave smut out of the classics. But let's watch them with a sigh of relief that we're allowed to talk dirty these days.

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