New Column: Dissecting the Miniseries: An Introduction
Speaking to Michael Ciment about his 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick revealed that he had once been interested in adapting another of Thackeray’s novels, Vanity Fair, for the screen. This idea was ultimately abandoned by Kubrick who felt that the story could not have been “successfully compressed into the relatively short time-span of a feature film”. He would immediately go on to utter the following line: “This problem of length, by the way, is now wonderfully accommodated for by the television miniseries which, with its ten- to twelve-hour length, pressed on consecutive nights, has created a completely different dramatic form.”
16 years later Stanley Kubrick wrote a very brief introduction for Faber & Faber’s publication of Krysztof Kieślowski and Krysztof Piesiewicz’s screenplay for Dekalog, the widely adored 10-hour television production which Kubrick reputedly considered to be the only “film masterpiece” produced in his lifetime that he could name. And while Kubrick’s words aren’t entirely gospel (that particular statement itself being highly questionable), it is quite heartening to know that a filmmaker equally as preoccupied with form as he was with content recognised the unique possibilities of a then new branch of motion picture art, as he did with the 30 second TV commercial in the 80s. It’s indeed unfortunate that Kubrick himself did not venture into either field, though lord knows how long a miniseries shoot might have lasted. In fact it’s a pity that talented feature filmmakers too rarely consider the television format as a viable medium in which to dabble, for when this does occur amazing things can happen, as will hopefully be seen as this series progresses.
At the current time, when mainstream television has steadily risen through weight divisions to become a legitimate challenger of feature cinema, the miniseries finds itself ever the underdog. Always a hard sell for any network, the miniseries nevertheless proves itself, often enough, to be of genuine artistic value and a draw card for major talents. One is reminded, most recently, of HBO’s Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce, as well as the Paul Giamatti-led John Adams the previous year. And let us not forget Olivier Assayas’ incredible three-parter Carlos, the definite cut having debuted on French station Canal+. Whether a teeth-cutting experience for up-and-coming talent or a passion project by established heavyweights, the miniseries does and has been doing a good job fighting extinction.
This series will focus on a handful of series (some landmark, some lesser known), reflecting on the form as it relates to feature film and exploring the ways in which it does what a two hour film cannot, the central question perhaps being: is the miniseries an extended feature, a bite-sized series, a hybrid of both, or is it its own animal?
Stanley Kubrick’s interview with Michael Ciment regarding Barry Lyndon can be found at: