Does English Literature Make for Better Television over American Literature?

Of course, an article like that becomes instant clickbait when I see that on my feed from The Atlantic on Facebook.  To give a summary, Rebecca Eaton, the longtime  executive producer of the PBS series Masterpiece, which has been responsible for showing the United States classic BBC series such as Downton Abbey, The Jewel in the Crown, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and I, Clavdivs, described the problem about not airing more show featuring more works from American novels.  First of all, she said American novels are too tied up in movie rights.  Second of all, and she admitted that she was generalizing, American novels do not have the components to make for good television.  To quote Spencer Kornhaber’s paraphrasing in the article, “But Eaton also theorized that American literature is often too dark, too weird, for Masterpiece and maybe for TV more broadly.”

Interesting point.  Let me start about by saying that Masterpiece has been on air for 44 years and was called Masterpiece Theatre.  It was all about featuring series based upon English literature.  Alistair Cooke hosted it for its first 21 years.  Look at the opening credits from 1983, and tell me any attempt was made to accommodate American literature.

This half-hearted attempt at inclusion that PBS is trying to do by dropping off the “Theatre” and every so often bringing in Wharton or Agee is nonsensical.   Masterpiece‘s audience love the BBC dramas.   They are the romantic Anglophiles.  As far as television entertainment and literature, English is best.  And if the Masterpiece executive producer is this biased, wouldn’t it be better to create a separate American Masterpiece franchise with an executive producer who would know how to advocate for the material?

I agree with Eaton as far as too many books being tied up in Hollywood contracts.  But just because her staff and she can’t handle the themes of American novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin does not mean they do not make for good television.  In fact, the United States needs dramatizations of books like that right now, considering all that is happening around us.  There is nothing wrong with television that makes the viewing public think and encourages the public to read.  And I thought that was part of what PBS was supposed to be about…learning.  At least that is what Sesame Street taught me.

I am sitting here thinking of all sorts of authors that are ripe for adaptation for the small screen:  Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Richard Wright, Willa Cather.  I could go on.   All of them tell compelling stories.  It just takes creative individuals to take what is on paper to translate it to a visual medium.  But we, the viewing public, have to demand it just as much as we demand the BBC dramas.

So, does English literature make for better television?  Subjectively, it is a personal preference.  Objectively, no, it doesn’t.  We just need different people in American television who understand American literature and a public willing to cough up the funds to make it happen.

If you think my idea is viable, feel free to contact PBS, and tell them what you think.  If you are a PBS viewer, don’t forget to support your local station with whatever you can contribute.

Meanwhile, enjoy this episode of Monsterpiece Theater.

28 thoughts on “Does English Literature Make for Better Television over American Literature?

  1. I’m a huge fan of Masterpiece Theater, and it started about the time that the series started. The shows are made, produced and performed by Brits for the most part. That is their right and their expertise. I love them — nearly all of them!

    Your idea for an American Masterpiece is a terrific one. And you are absolutely correct that this is a good time to air unvarnished contemporaneous views of our past. The difference is, our literature shows more of the dark side. But i think there is a market for it — see how wonderfully well 12 Years a Slave did.

    And a plus would be something to actually watch on TV instead of just damn reality TV (that has no foot in reality whatsoever).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. No idea why people love Downton Abbey! I took a look at the article – i love The Great gatsby. One of my favourite TV series back in the late 80’s was an adaptation of Tender is the Night so American novels, in my view, can make great TV. The BBC produce some but it’s the Independent broadcasters that have done Downton, Brideshead Revisited (possibly the best book adaptation ever), The Jewel in the Crown. Bleak House was made into a TV series – that was pretty dark.
    Right now most TV here seems to be repeats of things I don’t want to watch or reality TV and I agree with the first commentator about that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I never watched Downton Abbey, so I cannot judge. I read Tender is the Night. It started off so slowly, but once Nicole’s breakdown comes to light, it takes off. I have to see if I can hunt the TV adaptation down.

      I have no idea how Dickens was considered colorful and not dark in the article. He was all about Victorian social reform! Maybe there is some sort of cognitive dissociation going on because England has become this mystical land over the Atlantic in literature and television and not a real country in some people’s minds. It really does become over-romanticized.


      1. Downton began really well but seemed to turn into a posh soap opera (people died as actors decided to leave) maggie smith the one redeeming feature.
        I do like living in britain but sometimes i think people think it’s all thatched cottages and cups of tea. There were riots in london in 2011.
        I hope you find the TV series of tender but be prepared for a brunette Nicole. I was a teenager when it was on so quite a while ago! Did you ever read Zelda Fitzgeralds ‘version’ ?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the idea of American Masterpiece. I intend to start haranguing my local PBS station (KQED) about it every time I phone in a pledge.

    I agree about the odd case of Dickens. You can’t get much darker than Oliver Twist, but maybe since many people only encounter Dickens via musical theater and A Christmas Carol, they don’t realize what horrors lie within the actual books. First time I read Dickens, he gave me nightmares.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t know. Adaptions of American novels may not show up on PBS, but they’re everywhere else, aren’t they? And there’s a certain formula for those Masterpiece dramas (extravagant costumes, great country houses) that you probably won’t find much in American literature. Plus, the money thing. You don’t have to pay Jane Austen (or her estate) to film another version of Pride and Prejudice. I’m not familiar with UK copyright law, but US copyright protections can last a century (or more).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Movie adaptations only last about 3 hours at most. They don’t get into the detail that a TV series does. And when was the last time you saw an adaptation based upon Mark Twain’s novels? PBS is the prime channel to do it, since they love documentaries about him.

      The UK has similar copyright law regarding rights being free 70 years after the author’s death. (I don’t know about the “works for hire” scenario.) However, all works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain. They have no excuse there.

      Just because it would be grittier does not mean there would not be an audience for it.


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