How to Adapt the Work of Sarah Waters (with Director Pairings)

Sarah Waters/Photo © Charlie Hopkinson

Set in 1930s Korea at the height of Japanese colonialism, last year’s “The Handmaiden” told the story of a con man, an heiress, and an orphan pickpocket undercover as her maid. Lascivious content limited the film’s reach, but those who did see it were wowed by the sumptuous visuals and twisted, twisty triptych structure. What often went under the wire, though, is its antecedent: Sarah Waters’s Victorian-set novel Fingersmith. Ironically, that’s the brilliance of Waters’s novels in a nutshell. The queer British author’s books are so well crafted that their appeal cuts across time, space, and international divides. Though two BBC series also have been adapted from them, the cinematic potential of these works is still relatively untapped. Their meticulously rendered subcultures – queer communities, criminal underbellies, and supernatural phenomena of different eras – are the stuff of movieland dreams. Consider with us these possibilities.

  • The cover of the book Tipping the Velvet

    Tipping the Velvet

    A Novel

    The title of Waters’s first book doubles as a music hall reference and as a sexual euphemism, which is perfectly in keeping with her decoding of 1890s lesbian and class mores. The story follows resourceful Nan from her stint as a seaside oyster shucker in love with a male impersonator to her days as a stage performer, a “kept boy,” and, finally, to same-sex domestic bliss. The BBC series based on this book is terrific, but Aussie director Jane Campion could transform this tale into a prestige drama with all the sweeping scale and grit it deserves.

  • The cover of the book Affinity


    Told from the alternating perspective of two women’s journals, this Victorian mystery centers on suicidal singleton Margaret, an upper-class English woman who becomes fascinated with an imprisoned female “spiritualist” who has been convicted of murder and assault. The question, neatly underscored by the Russian doll-style narrative, is essentially: “Who’s framing who?” Anyone from David Fincher to Claire Denis could work wonders with this atmospheric material, but I would love a “True Detective”-style series that slowly reveals the many secrets at hand.

  • The cover of the book Fingersmith


    Korean director Chan-wook Park already has had way with this material but a more faithful adaptation of the book still is due. The story of Victorian-era Sue, a sort of lesbian Oliver Twist who falls for the lonely heiress she’s meant to con, is as absorbing for what it withholds as for what it reveals. Set against a backdrop of mansions, madhouses, and secret libraries, it not only depicts how people obscure their desires but how literature can enslave its readers – all while packing the punch of a triple-layered thriller that would make 1980s-era Mamet proud. Frankly, if Mamet had proven himself more sensitive to queer matters in the past, he’d be great with this material. I’d love “American Psycho” director Mary Harron’s take instead.

  • The cover of the book The Night Watch

    The Night Watch

    All of Waters’s books are melancholy, but this one may be her bluest. Set in World War II-beset London, it focuses on unseen civilians of the era: ambulance driver Kay, building inspector-novelist Julia, and Helen, the girl they both desire, not to mention queer Duncan, who is imprisoned for being a conscientious objector. An ensemble film is screaming to be adapted from this material, for tales of ordinary people’s extraordinary bravery has never been more needed. With his penchant for strong female actors and flair for period dramas, “The Hours” director Stephen Daldry could be the right man for the job.

  • The cover of the book The Little Stranger

    The Little Stranger

    Less explicitly homoerotic than any of Waters’s other books, The Little Stranger projects the anxiety wrought by post-World War II social change on a haunted house in the English countryside. Are the resident doctor, servants, and ladies and gentlemen more terrified of the havoc wreaked by demon energies or by the British class system’s collapse? The premise may venture far from the Waters wheelhouse, but the characters are so well-developed- she has a knack for rendering people’s most unsympathetic qualities sympathetically – that you climb aboard despite yourself. This has the potential to be a fantastic socially conscious horror film, a genre that is rightfully having its moment. (See: “Get Out.”) Perhaps “The Witch” director Robert Eggers would consider this for his sophomore effort.

  • The cover of the book The Paying Guests

    The Paying Guests

    Continuing her exploration of post-World War II London, Waters’s latest also tackles the breakdown of England’s class barriers. Set in a boarding house run by a once-genteel mother and daughter, it follows the love affair between the younger lady of the house and a female tenant saddled with a boor of a husband. Beautifully forlorn, it explores the intersection of gender, sexuality, and economics with a heightened drama that never devolves into soapiness. British director Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight,” “Miss You Already”) would nail the correct tone like nobody’s business.