The Anthony Powell Costume Drama: Do You Need to Read the Books?

I wish I had this set.

I asked two weeks ago, “What costume drama do you recommend?”  I decided to watch A Dance to the Music of Time, which is based on Anthony Powell’s 12-book masterpiece.  I keep resolving to reread the books first, so I’ve never made it through the entire TV series.  (I’ve already read Dance thrice.) This time I’m jumping ahead to the next disc.  Whyever not?

I first came across Anthony Powell’s novels at a used bookstore in Silver Spring or Bethesda.  I had a  prestigious low-paying job, intended for rich men’s wives, and I could barely pay the bills.  My single colleagues and I huddled in shared houses and dined on Happy Hour snacks at Houlihan’s.  Powell’s characters went to Casanova’s Chinese Restaruant or The Merry Thought, and had never heard of Houlihan’s.  

A Dance to the Music of Time is often compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past,  but I just don’t see it:  it’s too humorous. It reminds me more of  Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour.  As I get older, I see the Proustian poignancy of Powell’s work, but I really enjoy it for the wit and satire.

The TV adaptation is close to the books:  both chronicle the life of the narrator-writer, Nick Jenkins, from his interwar boyhood through the 1960s.  Powell introduces Nick in his interwar schooldays, follows him to the university (Oxford or Cambridge, I can’t remember), then through a whirlwind of society parties, and  into the army during World War II.  I don’t remember what happens after that:  hence the need for a rereading, or at least the TV series.

Widmerpool (Simon Russell Beale) and Nick (James Purefoy) in “Dance”

In the TV series, I am most impressed by the actor James Purefoy, who is perfect as Nick. We see him outgrowing the snarkiness and cruelty of school friends; his crushes and complicated love affairs; his eventual professional success; and his ambivalence toward Widmerpool, once shunned at school for wearing an unfashionable raincoat (called “a Widmerpool”), but now rising in the world.  Ironically, Widmerpool climbs the social ladder while Nick’s witty rich friend Stringham descends into alcoholism and poverty. 

The main difference I’ve noted in the TV series is that some of the wittiest dialogue is given to Nick rather than to the characters who speak it in the books.

By the way, the title  A Dance to the Music of Time is a reference to Poussin’s painting of the same name.  The painting reminds Nick of the seasons of life and of his connection to people through time:  he meets the same old friends over and over as the years pass. 

You get the feeling that London is a small town.

4 thoughts on “The Anthony Powell Costume Drama: Do You Need to Read the Books?”

  1. I started through the books some years ago and bogged down around volume 6 or 7. I have been afraid to go back to finish because I won’t remember who are the characters are, yet don’t want to start over from the beginning. Mostly I enjoyed the satire and Widmerpool was actually gradually winning my sympathy. He had only his ambition, but he took a lot of satisfaction in that.

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    1. Yes, the TV series is great, but there are SO many characters that It would be best for me to reread the books. I seem to be mixing up all the actresses. I can’t tell Barbara from Jean. That’s a disadvantage. It’s a dilemma.

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  2. Absolutely you need to read the books — if you want to understand the actual content. There are many film adaptations where the film is actually better than the book. Yes. Or just as good but in another medium of art so different. That is not the case with this film. Powell’s books are like Proust – you revel in the style and in the long drawn subtlety of the psychology of people as created through intimate social contact and the narrator’s perceptions. Much of this is totally lost in this film. Among the central problems is it’s too short and won’t use what is available in film techniques as substitutes: flashbacks, voice-over, montage.

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    1. I do love the books, but it’s been a while, and in the tv series I keep confusing the elderly artist Deacon With a florid Edwardian writer. And there seem to be several lovely actresses who are indistinguishable. That’s why I probably should reread the books. To understand the tv series! Sent from my iPad

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