This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 8 December 2015.
Can an adaptation follow its source material too closely? Despite strong direction and an excellent cast, the BBC adaptation of John Lanchester’s Capital, set to conclude tonight, has not yet come into its own. There is a sense that screenwriter Peter Bowker was a little too reverent when turning Lanchester’s 600-page novel into a three-hour miniseries, and the result is an overstuffed show that never quite satisfies. So many of the novel’s subplots are retained with only minor alterations, and the result is a fight between them for painfully limited screen time. One is left with the feeling that the project may have benefited from a radical rework rather than straightforward recreation. Capital has proven to be a muddle, then, but at least a well-shot, well-acted, well-intentioned muddle.
Like the novel, the show centres on Pepys Road, an ordinary London street, and the various people who live, work, and pass through it every day, from bankers and builders to shopkeepers and traffic wardens. The story unfolds over roughly a year, as a mysterious set of postcards start turning up featuring pictures of the street and its inhabitants, all bearing the words ‘We Want What You Have’. The mystery is largely incidental, but the series plays up to key moments for the purposes of cliffhanger endings, injecting big televisual set pieces into Lanchester’s plot. The ending of episode one, for example, saw the many residents of Pepys Road wander out into the street on Christmas morning to find the entire road spray-painted with the cryptic slogan. The scene encapsulates the show perfectly: all of the content of its source novel, none of the subtlety.
The series certainly has its merits, though. Euros Lyn directs with a sense of easy naturalism, with subtle shifts in the colour palette unifying the production as the camera ping-pongs across London. The interior shots feel lived-in and homely, while the location shoots feel chilly and authentic. Lyn does a particularly good job at capturing faceless institutions, with banks and detention centres rendered brutal and soulless in his hands. To see a cast this varied in a major BBC drama is both refreshing and necessary, given the series’ modern-day London setting. The acting is generally solid, but some performances rise above the rest. Gemma Jones is note-perfect as Petunia, selling the role of a dying, elderly woman with dignity and grace, Wunmi Mosaku conveys a sense of genuine humanity as asylum seeker/traffic warden Quentina, and Adheel Akhtar is charming as put-upon shopkeeper Ahmed.
Toby Jones is predictably convincing as down-on-his-luck banker Roger, bringing his usual quiet despair and downtrodden charm, but one can’t shake the feeling that he is miscast here. Roger is a character that we are meant to loathe on principle but guiltily root for, and Jones just doesn’t do enough to make us dislike him. But what really hamstrings the character is the fact that, in the absence of the novel’s lively internal monologue, Roger is simply not that interesting. The book depicts him going through the motions while reflecting upon them with mock-heroic despair; the series sorely misses such a commentary. While a different actor may have played the role better, then, Roger just hasn’t been rewritten for television.
Again, we return to the series’ main problem: more attention could have been paid to the transition from page to screen. Numerous sequences visualise iconic moments from the book, but without the characters’ internal monologues they fall flat. The mad dash from one sequence to the next could have emphasized the work’s diversity, but instead it feels jumbled. Were it split into six episodes, Capital may have complemented its perceptive details with newfound depth. The series captures the city of London perfectly. What it forgets are the people living in it.