PBS Masterpiece Series Exec Producer Rebecca Eaton on Great Adaptations

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in ‘Downton Abbey’/Image © PBS

Editor's Note: Rebecca Eaton has been executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! for more than twenty-five years. She has won multiple Emmys for her work. She lives in Boston. Her book, Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS, will be available from Viking late October. 

I’m in the television business, but I like to think that what my job really is about is books. This goes way back. When I was ten or so, my friend Candy and I would make dates to get together and read. I’d call her on the black rotary phone, my mother would drive me over to her house, and we’d settle down in the armchairs in her living room and read all Saturday afternoon. I can still hear the click of Candy’s thumbnail as she strummed the pages of her book.

I remember reading Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage over there one day (surely we were older than ten) and loving the crinkling sound of the cellophane library cover. Candy and I used to sniff our books: bury our faces in the middle of the pages and deeply inhale the smell.

I still sniff books and feel a visceral sense of comfort whenever I walk into a library, a bookstore, or any room with a wall of bookshelves. I panic if I don’t have a book to read.

This pleasure in books and reading led me, in a not very circuitous route, to my present job. Now I’m paid to read and to choose which books might make good television dramas. Even though I’ve grown somewhat immune to the seductive qualities of a fragrant novel, a new library dust jacket, or an elegant typeface, I still have to discipline myself to separate the great pleasure I get in reading a book from the reality of what it will take to transubstantiate it into a TV drama.

My job has come dangerously close to ruining the pleasure of reading for me. Every single time I read a book (or even a newspaper or magazine feature), I start producing it as a drama. Like everyone else, I visualize everything and cast the major parts, but for me, an involuntary checklist clicks into place as I read:

Does this story have a protagonist about whom I care so much that I can’t get him (or her) out of my head? Do I want to be constantly with him, or maybe even literally be him?

Does this story geographically take me someplace I want to go (India in the closing days of the Raj: Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, aka “The Jewel in the Crown”), but not where it would be logistically and budget-bustingly impossibly to film (the Amazon jungle of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonders)?

Does this story have a plot engine up front that will pull me forward in spite of myself and in spite of all manner of distractions in my head and in my life? Because boy, are there going to be a lot of those distractions for a television audience.

Does this story have at least a whiff of gravitas? Maybe because I’m a child of the sixties or maybe because I work for public television, I feel that any drama we do must accomplish something “meaningful”; it should reveal something new about the human condition historically, socially, emotionally.

Some novelists knock it out of the park with every item on the checklist ticked off: Jane Austen, for example. But she only wrote six (well, seven, really) books.

The fact that a book is beautifully written isn’t always helpful. In fact, it can be a strike against adaptation. Alistair Cooke, the illustrious journalist and former MASTERPIECE THEATRE host, always said that Dickens novels should be left alone. “Dickens’s voice!” he fulminated. “They never get the author’s voice right!” “Little Dorrit” won seven Emmys and “Bleak House” is one of my all-time favorite adaptations (sorry, Alistair). He felt the same way about our production of “Middlemarch.” George Eliot, he thought, had been left behind. But “House of Cards,” a BBC-MASTERPIECE co-production that aired long before Kevin Spacey and Netflix “discovered” it, began life as a marginally readable novel. Andrew Davies won an Emmy for his adaptation of it. He should have. His work was cut out for him.

Every now and then I pick up a book, read a bit of it, and then breathe a huge sigh of relief and settle into the couch because even though I am thoroughly enjoying it, I’m positive it should not be made into a drama. I can relax and just get lost in it. That’s what happened with Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

A contemporary British neurosurgeon wakes up in the early dawn and goes about his ordinary Saturday in London. Following a chance encounter, the surgeon’s life and the lives of his family members are threatened by a man with a degenerative brain disease. That same night, he operates on the man and saves his life. Very late, he crawls back into bed and falls asleep. One day. Saturday seemed to have everything on the checklist but, to me, even that wasn’t enough. Or perhaps more exactly, I felt a dramatization wouldn’t come close to doing this book justice. Saturday is about thinking, about consciousness. We get so inside Henry Perowne’s head that we think and feel everything he thinks and feels and, magically, we become more aware of our own process of thinking. When I put the book aside time seemed to slow down and I realized I was thinking about how my own brain worked. Amazing. Leave it alone.

I once read another book about which I felt the same way: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. A perfectly brilliant story – three stories, really – about women: Virginia Woolf in the days before her suicide; Clarissa Vaughan on a day in New York when she is giving a party and tending to a friend with AIDS, who subsequently commits suicide; and Laura Brown, on a day she is baking a birthday cake in California and considering suicide. The writing is luminous, but the story is so internal to the women that I thought it would be impossible to dramatize. Oh wait. In the hands of producers Robert Fox and Scott Rudin, writer David Hare, director Stephen Daldry, and composer Philip Glass (interestingly, all men), it was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, won one, and made about $100M.

I have a precious list of books that I’d like to see adapted before I hand in my badge. I’ve been advised not to go public with the titles because someone with more money (probably Scott Rudin) might snap up the rights. Well maybe. At least I’d get to see them made. They would be eye-poppingly expensive to do. I’d love to see The Known World by Edward P. Jones; A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby by Mary S. Lovell; Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day; and especially Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. But my most favorite of all would be an adaptation of both of Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Not only do they have the best titles and the best cover photo I’ve ever seen (for Dogs), they tell the true, heartbreaking, and very funny end-of-empire story of an eccentric British couple who go “out to Africa” and raise their children in the midst of staggering beauty, revolution, and personal tragedy. It’s a mother/daughter story I need to see. And the mother and daughter have to be played by Meryl Streep and Mamie Gummer.

Scott: Call me.