Fortunes of War

ARTS | Books and Films

Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021

We’re watching Fortunes of War, the 1987 BBC dramatization of Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levantine trilogies. I should say, we’re re-watching it – on YouTube – three years since first doing so, al fresco, on a laptop computer lounging in the evening heat on our pool terrace in Bali. I’m also re-reading the book itself, having found it again in Port Douglas in August. Manning’s representation of events in the wartime Balkans and later Egypt and Palestine had always struck me as masterly; so unexpectedly finding the book was nearly as much fun as rediscovering Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, another achievement of our winter escape from the southwest of WA. 

Generally, in relation to filmed adaptions of literature, I’m one of those annoying people who either like the book or the show, but never both. I’m happy to break ranks with myself on that, in this case. The TV series – only seven episodes, each of them riveting – is as faithful to the original text as seems possible, given the different milieus, and that is truly a joy in this instance, since the historical facts both fully underpin the book and the TV series, and shouldn’t be messed with. Another pedantry to which I happily plead guilty.

It is surprising (to me at any rate) how similar are one’s subconscious constructs of both the book’s text and the TV series’ dramatization. Re-reading a book always reveals more between its lines each time, however often it is read. Revisiting a film does the same. It’s always fun spotting the differences you detect between readings or viewings.

Guy and Harriet Pringle, in the book, test the mind’s eye. It may help that reading if you have had some close to direct experience yourself of the lives and times of which the book is a mirror. In my case this was the shambolic just-post-imperial Middle East and the bitter lemons of the Levant a decade after Manning’s narrative. It’s very English (I mean this as opposed to British, a distinction that is too often overlooked or misunderstood).

In the TV series, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are magnificently cast. Thompson’s Harriet is a tad more outré in her approach to her new husband and his coat-trail of connections than Manning’s original creation. Branagh’s pedant-Marxist English lecturer academic is just as frustrating as you’d expect, in both the book and the series, especially perhaps in his stage production of Troilus and Cressida in Bucharest while the war presses in ever closer to doomed Romania.

I didn’t think that in the TV series Ronald Pickup was quite as believable as Prince Yakimov as that awful Russian émigré, wastrel, glutton and scrounger was in the book. That’s not a criticism of Pickup, who portrays the seedy hopelessness and social distress of his subject very well; it’s just that, in a sense, Yakimov is the hardest character in the book to translate to a visual medium. 

The film has one other thing that sets it apart from the book, as a sensory experience. The theme music, by Richard Holmes, is brilliantly skin-tingling, fully evocative of everything that the story tells.

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