Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
In this case, British Catholic Julian Fellowes created and wrote the TV series and the film based on it.
The parishioner friend I saw the film with mentioned, after our viewing of the Downton Abbey film continuation of the television series, that the experience was like catching up with family. And I would have to agree with him.
For six years, PBS' Masterpiece allowed us a glimpse into the aristocratic Crawley family and their struggles in maintaining the old world of lavish, noble estates. We experienced the family’s joyous births, tragic deaths and seemingly every significant life event in between.
When the series concluded, especially as Americans, there was a sense that we wouldn’t see ever see the family again, identifying, I’d imagine with the beloved Lady Rose character (Lily James, absent from the film version) who now lives her life in America with her husband and eventual family. Given the length, expense and perilous nature of steamer-ship travel in the 1920s, her visits to England will be sparse, if in fact it’s ever undertaken again.
Without revealing too much, the film captures this self-awareness that life for everyone, even nobility is fragile, so one makes the most of it when gathered. With my parents nearing and arrived at octogenarian status, I know their average lifespans are ten more years, if fortunate. With them in the Midwest and me living in Los Angeles, I could get melancholy that I will only see them a couple dozen more times. But instead, it brings more value to our time spent together than had my life and ministry been in closer proximity to them.
The film version succeeds better than any other reunion event because it’s actually about something. Past reunion shows merely gathered former characters around some flimsy story conceit. (Bradys, anyone?) A TV-movie reunion, then, has the potential of losing the compelling nature of the story, the reason “why” we watched the original series in the first place. A good college reunion, for example, would provide tickets to a homecoming game at the renovated stadium for alumni to make new memories, not just rehash old ones at some dilapidated venue from their younger days.
The filmmakers rightly escalate the stakes in the film version as King George V and his wife will stay at Downton, the first time the abbey has hosted royalty of the highest order in the family’s storyline. The royal visit ups the tension in every scene. Any hint of misstep or scandal will diminish the reputation of Downton, already a minor estate in a struggling industry.
The filmmakers too, adapt the story for the grand, visual medium that film is. In the back of my mind going in, I knew I didn’t want to watch something I would otherwise DVR when the series ran. Here, too, Julian and his crew do not disappoint. There’s enough set pieces to justify the story’s upgrade to the big screen. An equestrian demonstration, a parade through the nearby village and a royal ball that comes close to the one depicted in the Russian Ark ensures the satisfaction of moviegoers.
In a way, Downton prepared for their silver screen debut all along. The longer, more lavish season finales bridged the gap between TV episodes and movie premiere. The ambiguous ending for this movie version seems, then, a fitting preparation for movie sequels -- or dare I say a reboot in the years or even decades to come. Rest assured, I have a feeling the Crawleys are one celluloid family that we as viewers will never really have to say, “goodbye."
Editor's Note: Regarding family viewing, the movie is very much as the show was. Common Sense Media recommends it for ages 13 and up. Here's some of what the site had to say (click here for the full review and some parent comments):
Parents need to know that Downton Abbey continues the story of the popular TV series; it has the same characters, creators, tone, and style as the series. Violence and sex are mild -- about as racy as it gets is a hot same-sex kiss after police raid a vintage underground gay bar, and there are no scenes in which beloved characters die or do battle. But themes are still adult: sex, scandal, social position, etc. Downton's nobles still live in rarefied finery, and the royal family even more so; much drama is mined from the potential for social gaffes during a high-profile event and from characters who act in ways not "suitable" for their "place." Characters drink at dinners and parties; no one acts drunk, but in one subplot, a character is given a double dose of a "sleeping draught," which causes no repercussions. Language is limited to a scene in which police officers call gay men "dirty perverts." Themes of teamwork and perseverance are clear from the way both servants and family members pull together for the royal visit, and characters who were formerly cruel to each other are now merely snippy.
Image: Jaap Buitendink, Courtesy of Focus Features
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