The first of Daphne du Maurier’s novels I read was Jamaica Inn, which thrilled and rather scared me when I first read it, aged about 12. I even made my parents take me to the ‘real’ Jamaica Inn – the old inn on Bodmin Moor which inspired the story (which rather disappointed me when we got there). So I was rather looking forward to the BBC’s adaptation and to seeing how they achieved the menacing atmosphere and drama of the novel. The book unfolds how Mary Yellan begins to understand the significance of what is going on at her uncle’s inn, the wrecking and the violence, and also falls in love with his brother Jem, and while there is plenty of description of Cornwall and of the scenes Mary sees, the tension is palpable; it’s the kind of book where you keep wanting to know what happens.
The biggest issue with the BBC’s version was the ‘mumbling‘, variously blamed on the sound mixers and the actors, and moaned about all over the internet. And this was a problem, particularly with Joss Merlyn’s lines, and it didn’t really improve across the three episodes. But that wasn’t the biggest problem, for me: what I can’t understand is how, when the drama seemed to stick fairly closely to the plot of the novel (though lacking much detail), the novel is so much more exciting. I can only assume that in a desire not to overplay or overdramatise – that is, n an attempt to show some restraint which is often appropriate in adapting a novel for screen, the events were slowed down a little too much. Much of the dialogue comes straight from du Maurier, and the action is little changed too, though the bedroom scene in Launceston was added (of course). The scenery is beautiful (though it was filmed in Northern Ireland rather than Cornwall), and Jessica Brown Findlay is well-cast as Mary, both innocent and fiery, unsure of her place in the world but with a distinct and strong personality. Joanne Whalley was perfect, in my opinion, as Aunt Patience, unhappy but determined to stick with her abusive husband (something she wrote about on the BBC blog). But Joss Merlyn is physically unlike du Maurier’s description (hardly a ‘great husk of a man’), and lacks the physical and psychological power that is crucial to the plot, and Jem is too shallowly drawn by this production – it is difficult to see why Mary was attracted to him, since he shows little sign of any real depth or interest. And Francis Davey, the Vicar of Altarnun, lacked any sinister atmosphere, despite being quite terrifying in the novel. The paintings which scare Mary and the way in which he reveals to her his part in the wrecking and murder are glossed over here, which causes the ending to lose its force.
The real issue is the one usually faced with adaptations of novels: the drama and tension of a novel lies in its detail, its description, its careful building-up of character, place and storyline, and this detail is necessarily lost in performance. The historical and social contexts which du Maurier brings out so well are also lost, which is a shame. Most of all, Cornwall itself is the great hero of du Maurier’s novels, and despite the (mumbled!) accents, this is lost here: the sense of place which is so significant in the book seems somehow obliterated. The best I can say for this adaptation is that I didn’t hate it; but I was a little bored by it, and probably only stayed with it to the end because I wanted to see how the novel was adapted. I suggest you read the book.