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Loving: The Original Downton Abbey?

As I mentioned in my preview to Loving, the novel reminds me a lot of Downton Abbey.

The popular TV show was the first thing that came to mind when I read a summary of Loving’s story.

The further I get into the story, I wonder how much Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, was influenced by the Henry Green novel. On a surface level, he might have been.

Both stories feature:

  • A shady head footman with sticky fingers and an eye toward being butler.
  • Rampant romance between the servants.
  • Scandalous romance (sometimes suggested) between the family and the servants.
  • A crotchety cook and a stressed-out head maid.
  • Infidelity within the aristocratic family.
  • A massive country house.
  • Uncertainty over the effects of the war on the house and the servants.

So, at first, it seems the stories are similar.

But once you dive into their execution, they couldn’t be more different—at least according to The Granta blog.

Here’s how Francine Prose compared the two:

So what keeps us home on Sunday night (apparently there are Downton Abbey viewing parties, but I haven’t been invited) are fairly conventional questions of plot: Will our heroes and heroines succeed or fail? Reconcile or break one another’s hearts? Will the rebel daughter marry beneath her? Who will inherit the power and especially the house? We want to know what the characters will do, but once we have met them, we no longer have any questions about who they are, or what they will say. Whenever someone begins to speak, we can turn the sound off and provide the dialogue ourselves.

That divide – predictability and one-dimensionality on one side, surprise and complexity on the other – is partly what defines the gap between entertainment and art, which isn’t to say that art can’t also be entertaining. It’s what sets a show like Downton Abbey apart from the novels of Henry Green, several of which have certain surface similarities to the PBS series, most especially Loving, which takes place in a castle in Ireland during the early 1940s.

But beyond their country-house setting and their periodic swings between the mistress of the house’s plush chamber and the servant’s quarters, the two works could hardly be more dissimilar. One could compare any scene in Downton Abbey (from the most to the least dramatic) to any scene in Loving, a novel in which the drama is so quiet and, we feel, so lifelike that (unlike in the TV series with its nagging violins demanding our attention) a moment of distraction could mean missing some critical turn in the action. And any such comparison would rapidly reveal the vast difference in conception and execution.

Where are the “nagging violins?” The only time I’ve noticed them are in the show’s open and close. That being the case, I’d hardly say they are “demanding our attention.”

Back to the point. In defense of Downton Abbey, the medium of television and the novel couldn’t be more different. Would Downton Abbey work as a TV show if it were exactly like Loving?

Maybe. I honestly don’t know. The Wire was subtle and complex, and it was an incredibly good television show. As the article mentions, the same goes for The Sopranos and Homeland (though I haven’t watched that one).

The plot to Downton Abbey is terribly weak at times (see the ending to season 3), but it’s still a solid series. And, on the surface level, a lot like Loving.

If you’ve watched and read both, how would you compare the two?

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yes, season three closing was excessively annoying.

    Like

    September 26, 2013
  2. Lucille #

    For the below-the-stairs information, creators of both Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey went to this source: http://www.amazon.com/Below-Stairs-Inspired-Upstairs-Downstairs/dp/1250023211
    I read this during the first season of Downton and was struck by the similarities that arose as the story moved forward.

    Like

    September 26, 2013
    • Lucille #

      To give proper credit:Below Stairs is by Margaret Powell.

      Like

      September 26, 2013
  3. The ending to season 3 was terrible, but didn’t the show kind of get backed into that kind of plot twist? The actor playing Matthew wasn’t coming back, and there was no way that the story could work around the heir just up and leaving the estate, could they?

    The episode with the birth of baby Sybil came across as a total surprise though, so not all of their character-offings are as bad.

    I guess I’ll need to check out Loving now!

    Like

    September 26, 2013
  4. I’m a big sucker for anything to do with historical fiction, so I’ll definitely end up reading this book, but I’m relieved to hear that it’s not exactly like Downtown Abbey. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t actually watched past the end of season one. I just appreciate originality, like everyone else, I think 🙂

    Like

    September 26, 2013
  5. Reblogged this on ritakurniawanblog.

    Like

    September 27, 2013
  6. I haven’t read Loving but now I will do. I don’t like watching soap operas or period dramas but somehow I enjoyed watching Downton Abbey.

    Like

    September 27, 2013
  7. Just a thought: A lot of us over the years have bemoaned television and its appeal to the masses. However I have often thought of television and movies as the new novel form. After all, they have many of the same results. In the early 19th century, novels were looked down upon the way romances have been looked down upon. And just look at the popularity of the serializations of Dickens novels.

    Like

    September 27, 2013
  8. My wife and I very much enjoy Downton Abbey, although last season’s finale was a bit predictable. We’re looking for next season’s episode one…and I’ll check out Loving.

    Like

    September 29, 2013

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