East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The same name but a different scent: Black Narcissus (2020)


There are two titles, two TV series, I’ve been expecting with much anticipation in this End of the Year time: one is the forthcoming new French Arséne Lupin series, and the other is the BBC co-produced adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus.
Both titles are an important part of my past, both promise a different take on a classic, both are right up my alley, in both cases the bar is set very high.
And tonight, I spent three hours watching Black Narcissus.
So what follows is sort of an instant-blog.

Black Narcissus is a novel published in 1939 by British novelist Rumer Godden. The story is about a group of nuns that set out to found a convent and school in the Himalayas, and how the attrition between their naive self-assuredness and the local customs leads to tragedy and failure. The book is extremely good, and was made into a movie in 1947.

The 1947 Black Narcissus is an incredibly beautiful Technicolor wonder, produced by the Powell & Pressburger team, and features Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Sabu and Jean Simmons. It is my favorite film in the Powell & Pressburger catalog, and easily one of my favorite films of all time. It manages to be a hard-hitting psychological drama, while conveying the sense of culture shock in the meeting between the British and the Indians. It is also been seen as a metaphor of the end of the Raj. The acting is impeccable, and the visuals are absolutely stunning – and entirely created on a sound-stage. There is also a subdued but impossible-to-ignore erotic tension to the story, that still is presented with class and a very light hand.

So, how does the 2020, 3-episodes miniseries compare?
I think the first thing to keep in mind is that this is a different kind of product, aimed at a different audience.
The serial format allows for more room, and the serial sticks closer to the novel in certain elements, while still stealing one central idea (sort of) from the movie adaptation.
The cast is excellent, and we have Gemma Arterton in the role that was Kerr’s, Alessandro Nivola in the Farrar role, and Aisling Franciosi in the Kathleen Byron role (about which, more later).
The series has also some spectacular location shots – and here I hit the first, strange snag – the studio-built, matte-painted Himalayas of Powell & Pressburger manage to be much more impressive that the real thing.

But there are other elements that I think are critical in the approach the writer and director chose for this 2020 adaptation – first and foremost, the idea of going for a full Gothic tone.
We get a dramatic backstory, that marks the palace in which the nuns are staying as a classic “bad place”, and it soon appears evident that sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) is seeing things – possibly ghosts. This gives a whole new meaning to the character’s breakdown and final fate.
Is she possessed by a dead Indian princess?
Is she just hallucinating?
Was she mentally ill to start with, or did she go round the bend because of the isolation, pressure and sensual suggestions of the place she is staying at?

Aisling Franciosi has a very big pair of shoes to fill – Kathleen Byron (that actually co-directed some of her scenes in the 1947 film) gave a definitive performance, and her descent into madness was chilling and believable.
The 2020 version adds a layer of (possible) supernatural, but is strangely bloodless.

At the same time, sister Clodagh’s backstory feels somewhat too explicit and unsatisfactory – Gemma Artherton is wonderful, but her character lacks the staying power of Kerr’s interpretation.

In the end, the 2020 Black Narcissus is a high quality entertainment that lacks the elegance and finesse of the 1947 film, and while staying closer to the original novel, cannot seem to capture the book’s subversive undertones.
It’s still a very good show, and probably much of the audience – being unfamiliar with the Powell & Pressburger adaptation – will be charmed. Or maybe not – because the Gothic element is in the end a letdown, and no doubt someone will comment this horror series is not scary enough.

For fans of the old movie, the new series will be probably both fascinating and irritating, at the same time beautiful and yet subtly vulgar – and for lovers of the original novel, probably heavy-handed and wasteful.

So, much depends on your expectations as you go in.
If you’re willing to accept this is a completely different beast, it will probably still be a good way to spend three hours.
And maybe then go back and re-watch the 1947 version, or re-read the novel.

As a final note, it was anyway a pleasure seeing dame Diana Rigg in her last role.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “The same name but a different scent: Black Narcissus (2020)

  1. I am downright fanatic about the 1947 BLACK NARCISSUS as I’ve always considered it to be a Haunted House movie standing shoulder-to-shoulder with “The Legend of Hell House” “Burnt Offerings” “The Haunting” and “The Shining” The 2020 version just made more explicit the supernatural elements that were there in the 1947 version but handled with a great deal more subtlety.

    Agreed 100% that Sister Clodagh’s backstory was unnecessary and for me, a waste of time. But I’d highly recommend the 2020 version. No, it doesn’t have Kathleen Byron going batshit insane in one of the most frightening descents into madness ever committed to screen but it does have a lot going for it.


    • I am with you on this.
      The miniseries is quite good, and probably closer to the current audience tastes.
      It’s still inferior to the 1947 movie, but that’s an impossible act to beat.


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