A Filmmaker’s Guide to the 19th Century Novel

by Annie Kapur about a year ago in how to

An introduction.

A Filmmaker’s Guide to the 19th Century Novel

Everyone knows that there have been many, many adaptations of 19th century novels, and everyone knows that there have been countless different methods of adapting them. Whether you go with Boris Karloff starring as Frankenstein in the 1931 classic, or whether you go with Tony Stark creating Ultron, the monster that sabotage’s the second Avengers film in a modern perspective. From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920 to The Incredible Hulk, 19th century Novels are some of the most popular novels to adapt either in full, or to adapt characters from.

The very first thing we are going to explore is the important authors and their novels. It is very important to know the writers of the era you’re looking to adapt, and not just the novel you’re adapting. You need to know other authors, how various authors are connected, and when in that century novels were written, in order to get that authentic voice from when you come to reading and annotating your book. Let’s take a look at a few in a quick overview.

Charles Dickens

The very first author, and possibly one of the most important of the 19th century is Charles Dickens. Dickens was big on writing child characters. If you wanted to adapt something like “Oliver Twist” then you probably want to have a look at what Dickens did for children, and how he was a big advocate of abolishing child labour. This gets you into having a look at the man behind the novel, and how he thought about his own writing. It will help you deal with aspects like sympathy when you come to scripting your movie.

Mary Shelley

The next author is Mary Shelley. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most adapted novels in all of film history–as we’ve already seen, it made its way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Tony Stark’s creation of Ultron. You probably want to explore why Shelley even bothered to write Frankenstein, and her own personal history–I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. This will also help you when scripting the characters of Elizabeth Lavanza, and Caroline Frankenstein as well. The female characters, though they don’t appear very much, are very important for drawing comparisons in gender within the novel, and that will definitely help the deeper aspects of your script.

Charlotte Bronte

The next author you would want to look at is Charlotte Bronte. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has been adapted over and over again for movies. I would personally try scripting a TV Show for this novel as it is set in three different main locations that you could use quite easily as seasons, each with their own episodes of around 4-6. You really want to delve deep into why Bronte changed her name when publishing her novel, and you also want to (possibly) read my articles on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and see exactly why the main character and the aspect of bildungsroman is so important. The reliability of the narrator is of the most importance though; the question of whether Jane Eyre tells the audience the truth all the time could give you an insight into how she perceives other people and whether that is the same, or different to how the audience will perceive them. Especially the character of Mrs. Reed.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s novels have been tried and tested for the screen many times, with novels like Emma, and Pride and Prejudice being brought into the 21st century. I think the main, and only problem, that you’ll run into when trying to adapt an Austen novel is originality. It’s quite hard to be original with an Austen novel anymore, since they’ve been adapted many times. All except Northanger Abbey–it has been adapted, but it hasn’t really been modernised well. With Austen’s novels it’s of utmost importance to get the relations between characters correct. The way in which characters use dialogue towards each other, and not just what they say, but also how they talk to each other, is very important indeed. Take the way Elizabeth Bennett talks to Mr. Darcy for example, and then take the way she talks to her mother–they are two completely different states of affairs. This is something that connects, and disconnects characters in the novel, and you need to be able to portray that on screen through the diction that the characters have. They can’t be changing diction, because then you’d have inauthentic characters; you need them to have similar dictions to create character voice, but have different reactions, and semantic fields when discussing different topics with different characters.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Most recently, Robert Louis (RL) Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character has also been a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the form of the Hulk but, it has also been one of the most adapted characters on screen in film history. The good thing about Stevenson’s novella is that it’s short, and there’s not much to read and research–the bad thing is that it isn’t written as a straight novella. It’s written through documents, and witness accounts; it’s important to create the authenticity of the story. That’s what you need to concentrate on as well, exactly how authentic do you want this to be? If, as with the MCU–you want it to be make-believe and not authentic, then you need to concentrate on the Jekyll and Hyde character, and their story. If you want it to be more authentic, then you need to concentrate on the characters around Jekyll and Hyde, since they are the witnesses to this. It’s important to know what you want to happen before you begin scripting, if you change your mind halfway through–you could end up making a mess, and not really getting a good connection of genre, and voice with your audience.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character of Sherlock Holmes is currently being portrayed in a pretty great TV Show by Benedict Cumberbatch, and in the Guy Ritchie films by Robert Downey Jr. Both of these films have a different take on the way in which Sherlock Holmes is portrayed, but also keep with the general gist of the novels that were written in the 19th century. For a start, both of them are set in different eras, with the TV Show set in the modern day, and the film set in the 19th century. Both of them have different atmospheres, but yet, both of them use very similar dictions for establishing the main character. There is an aspect of authentic voice used–the character has a very similar amount of detachment in both adaptations. This comes from a study of the novels. You need to make sure you get the design of the character correct, so that you can place them within the situation, and study their reactions. If you don’t design the character properly, you could be accused of being inauthentic.


Here are some novels you probably want to try out, research, read, or even watch various adaptations of, in order to study different types of Victorian/19th century novels. I personally would highly recommend reading as many of these as you can to really get a feel for the language of the era:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  • Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Red and The Black by Stendhal
  • The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  • Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope
  • Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau by HG Wells
  • The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Now, we need to have a look at what message is portrayed by the books that you’re going to adapt on to the screen.

The realities of war.

The very first message is the “realities of war,” which is portrayed mainly by writers like Victor Hugo, Stendhal, and Leo Tolstoy. I would be pretty careful with adapting these novels straight into films, and not in to TV shows, because of their sheer length. In my opinion, they never really get Les Miserables right on screen. I would highly recommend that you do watch the BBC Television Adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace from 2016. This will show you how to break down the message, and portray it correctly without sacrificing too much material. In these novels, as well as making a good movie, authenticity is also key to getting the characters, atmosphere, and personalities of the time just right. In order to research more about how war impacted people of the 19th century, you probably want to read a few essays on the French and American Revolutions by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.

Romantic Gothic.

The next message/atmosphere to explore is the Romantic Gothic. The Gothic looks overtly emotional, and overwhelming, almost sublime. The key writers of the Romantic Gothic are possibly Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Herman Melville, and Bram Stoker. The sublime aspect is created through grandiose scenery. This is the time you need to be over the top with those scenes of dangerous nature like glaciers, mountains, thunder, and lightning. There is something about the Romantic Gothic that has to take your breath away, and if it doesn’t, you may fail to get the correct feeling for your adaptation. I would highly recommend that you watch the film Inthe Heart of the Sea, which is an adaptation of the book of the same name, and that book is based on Moby Dick (I know, pretty distant–but it’ll work). I want you to have a look at the shots they take of the sea, especially when the whale approaches the ship. They’re grand and dangerous, they’re sublime, but also very uncomfortable, because you have that tense moment of something that is about to happen. If you would like to learn more about how to create this, and why you’d want to create it at all, then I recommend that you read Edmund Burke’s essays on the sublime.

The American question.

The next message is purely American. How do we create the 19th century American? Well, there’s a range of answers to that. The first answer is we take an All-American 19th century novel. These come from writers like JF Cooper, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and many more. Then we have to read the novel, and see what sort of message it is trying to portray about Americans. After this, the scripting process must include this message symbolistically, or through thematics, such as a saviour complex that goes horribly wrong, or as in a displacement through industrialisation that causes the characters to leave their home. For the American Question, I believe that the best novel you could read to research that at a time when displacement and saviour complex are used together–would be Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Even watching various adaptations of it through the years, and the changing social maxims would give you a good idea as to how audiences wanted to see that saviour, and displacement in Huck’s character.



The next important thing to do is study the philosophies of the 19th century, this will help you in creating authentic characters because you’ll then know their belief systems. As religion was not of empirical importance in the 19th century, as it was in say, Shakespearean England, we need not refer to the Bible, and essay interpretations from priests and writers. Instead, we need to look at some philosophical writings. We’ve mentioned Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine already. But the writings of the following philosophers may help you. Remember, you don’t need to read everything, you need to research–so here’s a starting point:

  • Hegel
  • Schopenhauer
  • John Stuart Mill
  • Marx
  • Engels
  • Kierkegaard
  • Nietzsche
  • Kant
  • Emerson
  • Thoreau
  • Walter Pater


Finally, of empirical importance is the dialogue you use in order to convey genre. We’re going to study this by having a small quiz just so that you can see exactly how important dialogue is. We’ll look at a quotation, and you’ll have to think about which of the three provided answers you think it belongs to. Remember to look at the words used in the quotation, and how they are being used to create a voice for the genre.


Number 1: “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as great and sudden change.”

Is it from: a) A Gothic? b) A Romance? c) An Adventure?

Number 2: “Our true passions are selfish…”

Is it from: a) War Fiction? b) An Adventure? c) A Gothic?

Number 3: “And remember the truth that once was spoken, to love another person is to see the face of God…”

Is it from: a) A Gothic? b) War Fiction, c) The American Novel?


Number 1 = A

This quotation is from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and uses words such as “sudden” and “painful” to give voice to the genre.

Number 2 = A

“The Red and the Black” by Stendhal is a piece of war fiction and it uses words like “our” and “passions” in order to convey this feeling of collective responsibility.

Number 3 = B

“Les Miserables” is a piece of French War Fiction, and conveys the message of “truth” in the theme of death by mentioning and having various brief concentrations on religion and love. This is to get the most out of the genre of war, and make it three dimensional as it impacts all involved, whether religious or not. It is juxtaposed with the feeling of love.


This concludes the first part of our discussion on what to concentrate on when adapting, or beginning to adapt the 19th century novel. I hope this has helped you in starting your scripting process, and for more information, please refer to my article on adaptation, and where to start–using the Cask of Amontillado by Poe. However, if you would like to prepare for the next part of our journey, then you may want to read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as that will be our focus for the second part of this series.

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Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur
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Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

Writer: "Filmmaker's Guide"

Focus: Adaptation from Literature, Horror Filmmaking Styles and Auter Cinema

Instagram: @anniethebritindian

See all posts by Annie Kapur