The Depressing Trials of Importing Middlemarch

1994's Middlemarch, the BBC mini-series adaptation of George Eliot's novel by the reliably excellent Andrew Davies, was originally available on DVD only in the UK. I imported it as soon as it was released. Some years later, however, it did make its way on DVD here in the USA, both sold separately and later packaged as part of The George Eliot Collection boxed set. Interestingly, the two releases are rather different. And frustratingly, it's hard to say which is preferable since neither seem to get things quite right.

Update 11/10/15 - 1/30/21: As part of my recent exploration of Spanish blu-rays, I've finally cracked and put in an order with AmazonES.  But I didn't get that 2013 Llamentol BD-R that was so harshly criticized below.  There's a newer edition from Mapetac, which didn't exist when I first wrote this article.  So I rolled the dice, hoping it has at least slightly more to recommend it.

Update 11/12/22: I've picked up the Llamentol disc to confirm what I already suspected: it's the exact same disc as the Mapetac, just with new an updated cover and label.  Boring, huh?  Well, to spice things up, I actually sprung for Llamentol's whole George Elliot Collection, so now we've got full DVD/ Blu-ray comparisons for Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede, too!  So it's a really big update for Update Week!
Middlemarch is the tale of a fictional English town during the tumultuous early 1800s. It's a complex, interwoven story with many characters and plots, but the two characters you could probably point to as most central are Dorathea and Dr. Lydgate, young idealists who make terrible marriage choices and struggle for purpose as their life's ambitions are repeatedly thwarted. It's not really a romance, though affairs of the heart certainly factor prominently. But it's still more Dickens than Austen or Bronte, tackling the human condition at large. Andrew Davies and a classic novel are an unbeatable combination (except maybe for that weird, modernized Othello he wrote), so you know this series is firing on all cylinders. It's got a wonderful supporting cast, including Robert Hardy, Colin's brother Jonathan Firth, Rufus Sewell and Elizabeth Spriggs. It was nominated for 8 BAFTAs and won 3, including Best Original Music, which will come into play in the extras. It's a great story, and the BBC has done an excellent job capturing it.
2001 UK DVD from BBC/ 2 Entertain on top;
2005 US DVD from Warner Home Video bottom.
Unfortunately, the BBC didn't do such a great job bringing it to home video. Although to be fair, their first attempt wasn't too terrible for an old DVD of a television drama. Their UK disc is oddly framed at 1.50:1, which makes it somewhat letterboxed, but it's still 4:3 non-anamorphic. And by 2001, all the quality discs were already anamorphic. So it was good news when the newer US disc WAS anamorphic. And they also fixed the aspect ratio, kind of. Well, they at least made it different. The US DVD is 1.78:1, which adds some information to the sides, but chops some off the top and bottom. I'm not really sure what the original aspect was, unfortunately; but I think it's a safe bet that a 1994 TV show wasn't formatting for widescreen TVs yet; so 1.78:1 is probably incorrect. I've never heard of anything being 1.50, though; and the US disc shows us the UK disc is missing picture from the sides... so I daresay they're both wrong.

Speaking of wrong, look at that first US comparison shot: it's interlaced! Yuck. Yeah, the US disc has got it bad, making all horizontal movement look particularly jerky. And this is a problem the UK disc does not have. It only entered into the equation when the US ported it over, so I guess they did the PAL/ NTSC conversion on the cheap. The US disc is also softer and paler than the UK disc, which wasn't exactly an impressively vibrant and clear image to begin with.  Both DVDs have optional English subtitles.
I can't really say either disc gets anything wrong in the extras department, but again, both of our options are quite different. The original UK DVD had two main extras (apart from some commercials/ bonus trailers): a 29+ minute 'making of' documentary and 30 minutes of the score, edited and compiled in 5.1 (the rest of the DVD is in standard stereo). The documentary is quite good, starting off showing how the BBC practically invades a small town and turns it into a period location which the locals have to live their day to day lives in while the series is shooting. It then goes on to interview the cast and crew, covering all aspects of the production from filming to scoring.

The US disc doesn't have either of these, but instead has its own 40 minute documentary, which is actually quite different. While a few key people, like Davies, are interviewed in both; they cover almost entirely different ground. This one takes a broader look focusing more on the original novel, telling you about Eliot, and the recent success of the series. It doesn't really tackle any of the subjects from the UK documentary, making it difficult to choose between them. They're both quite good, so most fans will want both. However, I don't know about you, but the prospect of buying two very flawed releases and still not having a particularly high-end viewing prospect doesn't sound to enticing to me.
You might stop me now to say: but wait! I see online that there is a third option: a Spanish blu-ray. Sold separately or as part of their 3-disc George Eliot Collection.  Yes, I have spent a lot of time researching it online. The 2013 release is from Llamentol, a most infamous blu-ray label, known for often releasing their discs on BD-R (which is to say home-made blank blu-ray discs).  I've researched it, and apparently it is quite poor.  Here, wait, allow me to quote a couple 1-star user reviews:

"Another disappointment,No digital restoration,no remastering to high definition.Shown in 4:3 format which looks terrible on a Modern widescreen tv.Not recommended,stick with the dvd." - from AmazonES

"[T]he picture is dire - massive amounts of shimmer and grain - it doesn't even come up a DVD standard (which I had and that was only passable too). There's flicks, wobbles and specks of dirt on the print (it's barely video standard). Worse - it seems to be defaulted to 4/3 which is TV Aspect so it looks like one of those old movies centered in your screen... I can't stress enough how bad the picture is - really awful... I'd say this is one BLU RAY to avoid." - from AmazonUK

"I am terribly disappointed in this blu ray version. It is grainy. Where is the excellent resolution of blu ray? The dvd is so much better! This so-called blu ray is going to Goodwill. Please don't buy this. Get the dvd instead!!!" - from our Amazon

So there you go, users from around the world warn us away from that blu-ray; and no, there are no positive contrary opinions. The blu also doesn't have any of the extras from either of the past DVDs. But lo, a new challenger enters the ring!  Oh, and I picked up that Llamentol disc, too, so we can see the difference for ourselves.
2013 ES BD from Llamentol on top;
2016 ES BD from Mapetac Distribution bottom.
Well, if there were any difference.  They're actually quite identical.  But, well, I have two main points to make about the BD transfer(s). They're pretty awful for blu-rays, and they're the best editions on the market.  Allow me to elaborate.  At 1.30:1, they're surely the most accurate aspect ratio of the show to date (though 1.33 would be even more precise).  They retain all the vertical information of the UK DVD, that the US cropped, but are the tightest of the three along the sides.  Still, they're probably about how it was intended.  They're super soft and noisy for BD, to the point where I could hardly call them BD quality.  They also lean a tad green.  But I do have to admit, they are ever so slightly sharper and clearer than the DVDs.

And here's where they really stand out: the blus have neither the non-anamorphic problem of the UK DVD or the interlacing of the US DVD, making them the clear winner(s).  In other words, they're essentially DVD quality... but the other DVDs are deeply flawed.  So they're the definitive version going, and I don't see this series getting a nice remaster any lifetime soon.
Of course the audio is lossy and the only subtitles are Spanish (at least they're entirely optional).  There's also a Spanish dub included.  And unlike the DVDs with their unique featurettes, the BDs are barebones.  They are pressed dual-layered discs, however.  Not BD-R.  It turns out Llamentol and Mapetac are sister companies, and I've come across several Mapetac updates of Llamentol releases, which have also proven to be identical on the inside.  Oh well, I guess they tricked me into trying the Mapetac, but I can't say I went in there with any higher expectations.  At least they resolve the disasters of the previous DVD editions - a rickety but definite step in the right direction.  It's hard to feel excited for an upgrade that looks this ratty, but it's still the best we've got.

Plus, I didn't just double-dip on the Spanish blus.  I used it as an excuse to spring for the entire George Eliot Collection, upgrading my DVDs (released by 2 Entertain and Warner Bros here in the states) of Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede at the same time.  Assuming they're upgrades at all, which as we've seen, is a shaky assumption.  The fact that the outer slipcover for the collection is just a sheet of paper tightly wrapped around the three amary cases doesn't inspire much confidence either.  But these two American DVDs are interlaced, too, just like the US Middlemarch.  So if Llamentol just manages to fix that, I'll be happy; and any improvement they pull off above or beyond that will just be a happy surprise.
So let's start with 1992's Adam Bede, just because it comes first chronologically.  It's pretty good, but I probably wouldn't have gone so far as to add it to my collection if it wasn't part of the set.  It's a TV movie, not a miniseries like the other two on this page, so maybe part of the problem is that it's been a bit abridged/ simplified?  I can't say for sure, because I've never read the book; but taken on its own, the greatest fault is just that feels simple and predictable.  Adam is a good poor guy who works for a bad rich guy, and they both fall in love with Patsy Kensit.  She's the bad girl.  Susannah Harker's the goodly pious girl.  You can guess how it all ends up.  Though I have to say, they do give some decent shading to the characters (i.e. Adam isn't that good), and there are plenty of plot twists involving secret pregnancies and interfering parents.  It's certainly an enjoyable watch with a great cast (also keep an eye out for Robert Stephens, Paul Brookes, Freddie Jones and Upstairs Downstairs' Jean Marsh), but you don't get the effect of a great literary work.  It may be too much novel for 100 minutes.
2007 US 2 Entertain DVD on top; 2013 ES Llamentol BD bottom.
Both discs are fullscreen, with the BD's 1.33:1 correcting the DVD's slightly pinched 1.31:1, which as made-for-TV movies from 1992 is surely exactly as it should be.  The colors are a bit faded and rather sickly looking, and this was clearly shot on film, so if the BBC ever cared to do a restoration, it would probably be revelatory.  But the good news: no interlacing!  As we should expect by now, the Dolby Digital stereo audio is lossy even on the blu.  The DVD had English subtitles, which the Spanish blu disappointingly but unsurprisingly substitutes with Spanish subs and an also lossy Spanish dub.  There are no extras for this movie on either release.

Next up is 2002's Daniel Deronda.  This one isn't on par with Middlemarch either, but it's more fun.  It's a miniseries, that's actually edited differently between the US and Spanish releases.  The US DVD is actually the way it was originally broadcast overseas: in three episodes, the first being movie-length, and the next two being the traditional "it would be an hour with commercials."  The Spanish blu re-edits it to four episodes of the same length, as it aired in other parts of the world.  Now, this doesn't just mean episode breaks in different places and an extra set of credits.  A bunch of scenes have been moved around, presumably to make each episode still feel like it's ending on a bit of a climax or cliff hanger rather than an arbitrary stopping point.  But nothing seems to have been added or subtracted to either version, so I wouldn't worry too much about it.  The DVD does boast "20 minutes not seen on American television," but after careful comparison, both discs appear to have everything.  Also, both discs are NTSC and the total run times are only about two minutes apart, which logos and the fourth set of credits would account for.  Still, it does mean liberties were taken with the original editing choices, so purists be warned.
The production values are flashier, and despite being substantially longer, Andrew Davies' scripting keeps the pace flowing with more energy than Bede.  It's great to see Jodhi May again after her excellent starring role in The Turn of the Screw.  The dramatic relationship between the risk taking Gwendolin and the dastardly Hugh Bonneville (and his toady, David Bamber) is delicious.  On the other hand, all the stuff about the titular Daniel discovering his lost heritage is preachy, if not downright hokey, and some of the plot twists feel a little obvious.  But I feel like Davies' recognizes this, and does his able best to keep all the plates spinning at an engrossing rate.  More great supporting players including Topsy-Turvy's Allan Corduner, Edward Fox, and Barbara Hershey all keep you thoroughly engrossed.  This one did win a bunch of BAFTAs, and will definitely please even the audiences who found Bede stuffy.  But it does get a little eye roll-y at points.
2003 US Warner Bros DVD on top; 2013 ES Llamentol BD bottom.
Both discs are anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1, but Llamentol reveals a smidgen more information along the edges.  Otherwise, it looks pretty much like another upconvert, with essentially the same SD master.  But yes, once again, the BD fixes the DVD's interlacing problem, which is all I wanted.  Once again, the Dolby Digital stereo audio is lossy even on the blu.  The DVD had English subtitles, which yes, the Spanish blu substitutes with Spanish subs and an also lossy Spanish dub.  Neither disc has any extras, except for a little photo gallery on the DVD.

So all of these Llamentol BDs are underwhelming.  But they're all also the best way to watch these excellent programs.  So I recommend them, as long as you keep your expectations in check.  But it sure would be nice if the BBC went back to the original negatives and restored the heck out of all excellent shows.  Sigh...

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