Even in a body of work as revered as that of producer team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus stands apart. Adapted from Rumer Godden’s novel, the 1947 film follows a mission of the Order of St Faith, led by the young but redoubtable Sister Clodagh (played by Deborah Kerr), in a doomed attempt to set up a convent school in the Himalayan Palace of Mopu. The locals are indifferent and the palace is haunted by indiscretions and tragedies from its past as a harem, while the nuns — in particular the fragile Sister Ruth, caught in a lust triangle between Clodagh and cynical expat planter Mr Dean — find their faith and sanity tested to the limit.
A heady brew of the earthly and the spiritual, of repressed love and religious guilt, of transgression and denial, it won Oscars for Jack Cardiff’s unforgettably vivid Technicolor cinematography and Alfred Junge’s superb art direction. Its influence has been felt everywhere from Disney’s Frozen (whose art director credited its look to Black Narcissus) to the work of Powell devotee Martin Scorsese. Who would dare tread on such consecrated ground?
The answer comes with a new three-part adaptation by Amanda Coe (Life In Squares) for the BBC, FX and DNA Films. Charlotte Bruus Christensen directs a fine cast led by Gemma Arterton (Clodagh), Aisling Franciosi (Ruth), Alessandro Nivola (Mr Dean) and, in her final screen role, Diana Rigg (as the stern and sceptical Mother Dorothea). For DNA films and Christensen, it is not the first time approaching a novel previously adapted to great acclaim, having worked on 2015’s Far from the Madding Crowd.
“The lesson we learnt from Hardy is that if you have good source material, you can do it again and again,” says executive producer Andrew Macdonald. “I hadn’t thought about Black Narcissus until the idea came up in a meeting with the BBC. I told them nobody else could do it!”
Macdonald had good reason for this sense of destiny: he is Pressburger’s grandson. (In a further example of dynastic serendipity, one of the series’ assistant directors is Godden’s great-granddaughter.) The 1947 film was, Macdonald notes, Powell and Pressburger’s first adaptation. “My grandmother had been given the book and impressed upon them how interesting it was, especially in terms of the female viewpoint. I thought it was very important from the beginning that our writer and director [this time] were women.”
The film has only grown in stature, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Scorsese and his longtime editor (and Powell’s widow) Thelma Schoonmaker in ensuring their restoration and careful distribution. There was considerable consternation at the prospect of a remake and, says Macdonald, some “quite tricky” conversations were had. “The principle objection was: why are you doing this when it was done so well? But the conclusion was that whatever happens, it will draw attention to the original. So you can’t lose, really.”
Godden’s estate required little persuasion; the author had been dismayed by the artifice of the Himalayan backdrops shot at Pinewood Studios, and her family was keen for her book to be rediscovered. Yet screenwriter Coe was understandably circumspect. “My initial response was: the film’s a masterpiece — why create that problem for yourself? Once I’d read the book, I could see there was a case for making it. Brilliant as the film is, it was made at a different time and there’s a lot in the book that still feels fresh.”
Powell and Pressburger cast a long shadow at Pinewood; Macdonald is talking in a boardroom just down the corridor from a framed photo of David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death. A floor below stand the series’ superbly detailed interiors. The palace doubles as a symbol of spiritual confusion, its bathhouse converted to a laundry, erotic frescoes covered by muslin sheets and the faded gold leaf a jarring contrast to the nuns’ rope beds.
“We’re here because Pinewood read that we were making it and said we couldn’t make it anywhere else,” explains Allon Reich, another executive producer. “It’s incredibly difficult to get stage space in the UK, but they’re rightly proud of the film and keen to preserve continuity.”
Black Narcissus is far from being the first TV series to follow a cinematic adaptation of a well-loved book, quite apart from countless screen versions of the familiar period classics. A Harold Pinter-scripted 1990 adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale largely lacked the ingenuity and simmering anger of Margaret Atwood’s novel; the Hulu TV version, meanwhile, has been a cultural phenomenon. HBO’s superb Watchmen at least had the advantage of following a film of Alan Moore’s epochal graphic novel that was largely reviled (not least by the author himself), while His Dark Materials came a decade after a would-be film franchise that foundered in the wake of Harry Potter. In recent years, perhaps only the team behind 2018’s Picnic at Hanging Rock have shown comparable nerve to Macdonald and co in taking on a similarly beloved film adaptation: its slow-burn dread and deeper plotting made for a different, if not necessarily superior experience to Peter Weir’s sinister, sexually charged 1975 original.
The new Black Narcissus makes crucial breaks with its predecessor. Coe’s storytelling is a little less ripe and melodramatic, pacing the drama over three hours and giving more time to supporting characters neglected or cut altogether by the film. Even more significantly, it adopts a more authentic approach to casting: the pivotal role of village girl Kanchi is played by British-Nepali newcomer Dipika Kunwar, rather than Jean Simmons in blackface.
Godden, who grew up in India, might also have been pleased by the results of a week’s filming in the Himalayas. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” says Arterton. “That beauty is a huge part of why the nuns unravel — the untameable godliness of the place makes them start to question God. When we came back to shoot at Pinewood, it was invaluable to have that in mind.”
For all that it goes back to the source, there are homages to the film, from exact replicas of the 1947 nuns’ crucifixes to a new version of the famous bell-tower sequence. “We talked about that a lot,” adds Coe. “My instinct was to make a completely different version, but as I got more comfortable with the material, I realised you have to deliver on certain things, or it’s like seeing Hamlet where he doesn’t do ‘To be or not to be.’”
The new adaptation also allows for period context missing from the film but still apposite for a contemporary audience. The psychological impact of the first world war, for example, explains Mr Dean’s suspicion of the crumbling colonial project and its condescending, ultimately doomed imposition of western values on people living harmoniously without them. Clodagh, meanwhile, wrestles with taking the lead in an essentially patriarchal institution.
“A really good story is always relevant,” concludes Coe. “The book and adaptation are parables about the dangers of ‘othering’, of making oneself exalted at the expense of cultures outside, even the notion of one’s own history. The book is a compressed, powerful expression of that, rendered as psychological horror. Those concerns are omnipresent now. And nuns losing it in isolation together? We can all relate to that this year.”
On BBC1 (in the UK) December 27-29 at 9pm, and on FX in the US
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