BBC’s adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover

The BBC’s adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel by D.H Lawrence, recently aired on BBC1. It starred Holliday Grainger (Great Expectations) and James Norton (Happy Valley) as Lady and Lord Chatterley, a couple who are happily married until the war leaves Lord Chatterley paralysed from the waist down, and therefore impotent. Lady Chatterley then takes a lover, her husband’s gamekeeper Mellors, played by Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), crossing the class boundaries of 1920’s Britain. I had eagerly looked forward to watching this, after reading the book and finding the text, and the controversy its publication caused, fascinating. When the full version was published in 1960 by Penguin, it went on trial for obscenity, due to the detailed descriptions of sexual acts and the language the book employed (namely the “c” and the “f” word, never before printed in Britain). Penguin won in a victory that seemed like a triumph of liberal artistic freedom over old-fashioned values. Thus the novel embodies a shift in attitude towards sex in the 20th century.

And yet this BBC production has no sense of freedom or excitement. Albeit, when taken without the novel, it is a well-made television programme. The depiction of the class divide seems more realistic here than in programmes such as Downton Abbey. The performances are all good, especially James Norton’s portrayal of Lord Chatterley as he struggles to come to terms with his disability. In one particularly moving scene he undergoes an excruciating procedure for the chance to produce an heir, and his desperation is tangible. The aftershock of WW1 on veterans and their families is an interesting subject. Also the costumes are brilliant, in particular Lady Chatterley’s clothing is beautiful, and when contrasted with Mellors’ plain and dirty clothes, serves as a visual reminder of their different classes.

But ultimately the programme fails to depict the novel. Many storylines are ignored or neatened, and the main problem with this adaptation is its lack of sex. Understandably, the BBC does not want to make a pornographic film, but deciding to ignore the main theme of the book seems ridiculous. One of the most significant moments in the novel is when Lady Chatterley and Mellors have a mutual orgasm. This experience completely alters Lady Chatterley’s attitude to sex, and lifts her from depression. In the BBC’s adaptation, the main love scene between Mellors and Lady Chatterley contains some semi-nudity, before fading into a clichéd shot of a fire. The most significant moment in Mellors and Lady Chatterley’s relationship is cut out for fear of offending the viewer.

Of course, two people orgasming isn’t ideal viewing for 9pm on a Sunday, but the BBC could have billed the programme for later and made a true adaptation of the novel instead of a softened, censored version. Because ultimately that is what has happened; 55 years after the book was freed of censorship, the television version has been censored. The fact that in 2015 the BBC is unwilling to feature an orgasm in a programme is disheartening. Lawrence portrays sex as something visceral and beautiful that unites everyone and transgresses class. This idea is what made the novel radical when it was published, and why it is still relevant today. The BBC chose to take no risks and instead produce a conventional Sunday night drama that loses almost all sense of the original novel.


Fionnuala Deasy


Featured image from The Independent.

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