In Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen, Dianne Sadoff covers a wide range of mostly Gothic and Victorian texts that have been adapted throughout the twentieth century into films. She chooses specific canonic works based on their high level of societal influence and adaptability. She also brings in the idea of the "heritage films," which are essentially pre World War II period films aiming to create a sense of nostalgia or escape. In the introduction, Sadoff explains that she will illustrate the idea that "heritage film...becomes a dominant cultural form during modern and postmodern ages of anxiety." These adaptations correlate over time with distinct societal changes, creating not only an escape, but one that people were and are able to relate to, leading to the popularity and longevity of certain texts. Victorian Vogue itself was published at a good time because all of the works that Sadoff chose, dating as far back as the early nineteenth century, have had the time to be analyzed adequately. In five diverse chapters, she compares the works of authors, ranging from Jane Austen to Henry James, to how they meshed with changing societal issues such as relationship ideals and scientific theories. She takes a particular interest in reconstructing the cultural acts that the novels perform, and she uses a wide range of critical sources and viewpoints, giving her the objectivity she needs.
Chapter 1: Heritage Film, Serial, and England's Jane
This chapter covers adaptations of Jane Austen's novels such as Pride and Prejudice and how they mirrored changes in England's middle class throughout the nineteenth century, particularly in the early decades. During this time, the middle class became interested in learning more about the upper class, and Austen's film adaptations were an important tool for this particular audience. According to Sadoff, these films provided a window for the middle class into the lifestyle of the rich, helping them "move up" social classes by imitating aesthetic tastes. This caused the films to become so popular that they all but dug Hollywood out of near-collapse after The Great Depression. When people started to recover, they still valued the content of Austen's work despite the decline of the "country house" (which she foresaw) because it illustrated what they believed life should and could be, causing her work to remain popular. Her stories are now considered "good taste" and are still used as canonical works.
Chapter 2: Being True to Nineteenth-Century Narratve
In this chapter, Sadoff explores the idea of fidelity discourse and its relation to ideas of fidelity in society. She claims that the level of faithfulness in adaptations correlates with the changing views of romantic relationships. Sadoff explains "hinge points" (portions of the "original text" that need to remain the same) and "satellites" (areas that may be changed to help with comprehension) and provides specific examples that illustrate how adapters have taken certain liberties to create a more interesting and comprehensible film. For example, Sadoff provides a sort of play-by-play of the 1967 adaptation of Wuthering Heights where Cathy and Heathcliff are arguing. Sadoff writes, "'That's all I've become to you, a pair of dirty hands,' he yells, slapping her face and running to the stables where he breaks the window and, looking/reaching out, bloodies his hands." There are many of these detailed descriptions of specific scenes in films, and she relates them back to the idea of fidelity to the "original text." Although changes were made in the story, filmmakers can identify these "hinge points," creating a certain level of that fidelity that many search for in the films. Over time, these "hinge points" change, if slightly, just as the idea of fidelity in relationships changed throughout the twentieth century. The Brontës are used to illustrate what women expected from the movies and why (mostly regarding heterosexual romance), and then Sadoff transitions into more examples of film adaptations that would be considered simply romance such as Clueless (1995).
Chapter 3: Reproducing Monsters, Vampires, and Cyborgs
The two main works that Sadoff focuses on in this chapter are Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula. This chapter follows what she promised in her introduction quite closely because she explains how the changes in the (many) adaptations throughout the 20th century match up with certain societal changes, with particular emphases on romance, science, technology, and economy. She briefly brings light to themes such as electricity, but her main focus seems to be on sex and reproduction. Because of the code, a set of guidelines for moral censorship in Hollywood, films were limited when it came to sex, but Gothic themes found a loophole, disguising sexual scenes with the idea that it is actually a monster attack, not a sex scene. Because of this, women, who often found their sexual restrictions in real life to germinate boredom, were drawn to these storylines and became the main target audience for these films. Fidelity in these films was not much of an issue because of the adapters' goals of entertainment, but they usually tried to stay true to the periods, dressing actors in elaborate Victorian costumes and choosing settings such as castles and Gothic mansions. Where Dracula focused on the sex itself, Frankenstein dealt more with the result of sex, which is reproduction. Even today, reproduction is a hot topic (cloning, frozen embryos, etc.), showing us how malleable these texts are when it comes to changes in society. Frankenstein is also seen as the first cyborg story, bringing life to more scientific curiosities and new ideas of creation/reproduction.
Chapter 4: Middlebrow Audiences, Cinematic Sex, and the Henry James Films
In this chapter, Sadoff shows how Henry James strove to write pieces that might be easily adaptable in hopes of becoming popular. According to Sadoff, James' texts explore whether a focus on high culture can actually become popular through adaptation. Drawn by the idea of the "middlebrow" audience, James sought to attract both upper- and middle-class audiences to the adaptations of his works by making more "realistic" characters for easy adapting. As time progressed and the code loosened, adaptations of James' work began to test the limits of the code in regards to the sexual boundaries, which turned out to be a major contributor to the popularity of his works. They also helped pave the way for modern pornography.
Chapter 5: Styles of Queer Heritage
Sadoff uses Henry James again in this chapter, but pairs him with Oscar Wilde and how their adaptations helped to create "queer heritage." Both authors played around with homosexuality in their works, creating this heritage, but they did it in a way that made everyone interested, regardless of sexual orientation, because they were able to sympathize with the characters. Sadoff seems to focus more on the creation of a new heritage in this chapter rather than her previous emphasis on the effects of class. Every detail of the adaptations of Wilde and James were carefully crafted to portray a certain new world to the middle-class audience. Because of these new subjects, more cultural restrictions were birthed for both men and women, especially because of the debate between what is aesthetic and what is "immoral." Overall, the Gothic novel played an integral role in this evolution of sexuality in films.
In this book, Sadoff does a decent job sticking to her focus on heritage film and the correlation of adaptations to societal changes. There were a few areas that were a bit more difficult to tie in, such as the tail ends of Chapter 2 and 4, but her wide variety of example films, literary works, and critical sources illustrated her points very well. She offers new perspectives not only on fidelity discourse, but how that conversation can take turns in different directions. The organization, although sometimes overwhelming with such large chapters, makes plenty of sense, helping the reader understand her viewpoints thorougly. Anyone interested in film adaptations of canonic nineteenth century Gothic and Victorian novels will find great value in this book.