You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

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Here’s the thing about 19th-century novels:  pleasurable though they may be, eventually you find yourself feeling strangled by the misogyny.  After growing increasingly dissatisfied with roles for women in “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1998), “Our Mutual Friend” (1998), and the full 882 pages of David Copperfield, my fixation finally bottomed out late last night with the horrifyingly bad 1997 American TV-movie version of Louisa May Alcott’s “The Inheritance” — a show so embarrassing I held my head in my hands (but I watched every minute of it, just in case).

So I turned tonight to the 1928 “Passion of Joan of Arc,” a French silent by the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, starring the stunningly beatific Melle Falconetti — who looks like James Spader did in his beautiful youthful days, with that broad face, wide blue eyes, and perfect lips.  Except whereas Spader used his beauty so often in those years to evoke cruelty, Falconetti sheds tears of love for God.

There’s another reason to geek out with this film during my summer of research: it opens with a shot of someone thumbing through pages of the original testimony of Joan’s trial as it was recorded in 1435; the film covers her trial alone (and takes significant liberties with the facts, though for good effect) — so it ends up being a surprisingly textual film for archives geeks out there.  The down side of this choice is that we see all of Joan’s suffering and none of her muscular Christianity and military leadership.  So while it’s not surprising that the film can be found streaming on the website Gloria.tv (its catchphrase is “The more Catholic, the better”), it’s unsurprising to learn that it was originally censored by the Church for its portrayal of the hypocritical, corrupt leaders that oversaw Joan’s trial.

With her hair clipped so close, Falconetti has an unapologetically androgynous face; devoid of any perceivable makeup and appearing to shed real tears, the 35-year-old actor holds virtually every scene as she plays the 19-year-old martyr.  I can’t remember seeing a film in which the tight close-up of its protagonist constitutes so much of the film’s narrative.  (There’s even a scene in which the priests bleed her and real blood comes spurting out of an arm, but I find via online commentary that this was the arm of an extra.)  Every shade of emotion crosses her face — pure devotional love, sudden fear that she may have been fooled by the Devil, misplaced trust in a sneaky priest, religious conviction.  It’s stunning that this was her second of only two films; she dedicated the rest of her career to the stage.  This kind of role in such an otherwise spare film — the sets are bare bones, and there are only a few exterior scenes with crowds of angry followers — must have been brutal to get right.

When the film isn’t asking us to gaze at her, it engages in a lovely bit of cinematic elegance: it gazes upward.  Sometimes toward the sky or birds lofting onto a church spire, sometimes toward a window placed high on a wall, sometimes merely toward the shadow of a window on a blank white wall with its cross-like panes.  Each time, these scenes infuse the film with religious hopefulness, even as the priests’ perfidy becomes glaring and Joan’s fate becomes ever more doomed to the stake.

I’ve got virtually no religious bones in my body, but seeing this film took me back to my weird middle-school years, when I yearned for faith (to fit in, to ease my fears of death, to find meaning in junior high…).  If I’d seen this then I would have tried to be Joan — to experience her clear-eyed certainty (and even more important, to model those beautiful expressions on her face).  Thus, I watched this film with a tangle of memories, as well as more academic thoughts about women’s long history in the church and the power of devotion to give one a life beyond wife-dom, ceaseless childbearing, and drudgery.  No wonder nuns continue to have such appeal to young girls, even now — with cinematic models such as Falconetti, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, Jennifer Jones, and even (argh) Julie Andrews, womanhood as a religious devotee allows women an exceptionally meaningful life that doesn’t require having good hair or enough money for a dowry. 

I see that a group of film bloggers recently declared “The Passion of Joan of Arc” the best silent film ever.  I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far, but it’s worth reading about the extraordinary story of its destruction, censorship, reconstruction, and the eventual rediscovery of what they believe to be the original print.  It’s not exactly the kind of antidote to 19th-century feminine mawkishness I was expecting, but Joan of Arc’s passion is a head-clearing dose nevertheless.  Beautiful.

I have dived into Dickens.  It started, of course, with the 2008 BBC miniseries a few weeks ago; now I’m reading the copy of David Copperfield I found in my summer rental apartment.  Meanwhile, I’m scouring Google Videos for a Dickens back catalogue available online — and have found a muddy copy of what is obviously an excellent four-part version of “Our Mutual Friend” (1998) on YouTube, disappointing only in that I have to ingest it in 9-minute increments.

Ordinarily this would strike me as strange — doesn’t Dickens sound more appropriate for a winter break?  All those hungry children, conniving lawyers, brittle old women, and cold garrets.  Maybe if I were in sweltering Texas I’d find this too much.  I think the appeal of Dickens right now reflects the fact that doing research makes one strange.

I’m looking around the research library right now, noting how many of them are of the same type:  disheveled (I’ve counted five with bed-head hair), shabbily dressed, poor posture — and absolutely preoccupied with their work.  Don’t get me wrong:  I am exactly the same, sans the bed head.  The woman across the desk from me has an expression on her face as if she’s simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the materials she’s reading. The woman next to me whispers unselfconsciously as she reads aloud over her magnifying glass.  The man on the other side is surely a grad student — he can’t be more than 26 — yet he already has the perceptible disappointment and self-defeat of a 50-year-old.  An atom bomb could go off and these people’s eyes wouldn’t lift from their books.

Given this cast of characters, it seems entirely appropriate that I’d be watching a show about a family that made its fortune in the dust business, and an “articulator of bones,” Mr. Venus (Timothy Spall, whose face guaranteed him a lifetime of Dickensian parts; he’s also appeared as Peter Pettigrew/ Wormtail in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and the uxorious Nathaniel in “Enchanted”).  The faces of the people in the library with me aren’t that different than those of Noddy Boffin, Betsy Trotwood, or Sloppy.

So here’s to a summer of talking to myself in the library, and then racing home to consume another couple hundred pages of social satire and condemnation of society obsessed with money and status — by an author who knew that no matter how much he criticized the world around him, the worthy man and virtuous woman would always marry in the end (and probably wind up with piles of money), and that his readers would weep as a result.