Step by Step: Translating Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ from Text to Screen

Posted by Elizabeth Bobbitt on June 30, 2015 in Elizabeth Bobbitt tagged with , , , , ,

For my final blog, I would like to examine my actual process of adaptation more closely, in order to discuss the practical steps which I undertook in transposing Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho into the format of a script for television. In doing so, I will be referring back to the excerpt of my adaptation which I posted in my last blog. For those of you who did not have a chance to read it, here it is again:

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The only light in Emily’s chamber emanates from the meagre glow of several candles on the mantelpiece above a large, unlit fireplace.

A window on the left side of the room is thrown open, and a light breeze causes the candles to flicker, casting oddly shaped shadows on the opposite wall.

Emily’s bed is unmade and rumpled, and it seems as if she attempted to sleep, but failed.

She is busying herself around her chamber in preparation for their journey south.

Emily is feverishly collecting her books, clothes, and drawing utensils; throwing them unceremoniously into a large trunk by the door.

She pauses at the mantelpiece on the way back from her third trip to her over-laden trunk, glancing up at a portrait resting there.

It was painted perhaps twenty years ago judging by the style of execution and the dress.

She reaches for the portrait and picks it up.

It depicts a young woman, closely resembling herself, although the woman’s eyes are darker than hers; haunted and frightened…



A five year old Emily is perched on her father’s knee as they sit together in a threadbare and commodious armchair.

St. Aubert is straining to reach something which he has hidden on the floor behind them.


What is it, Papa?


St. Aubert grabs hold of a small, framed painting and lays it in Emily’s small hands.



It’s your Mama, Emily…isn’t she lovely? Just like you…


Emily looks down at the portrait in her hands curiously.

It is covered in a black cloth, gossamer like in its transparency…

The camera closes in on the eyes of the portrait through the black veils which covers it.

Emily’s eyes widen in terror, and she drops the portrait with a loud clatter on the stone floor…


The first step in embarking on any adaptation of a novel is, of course, to read (or re-read) the source text again. There is a big difference between experiencing a text as a reader, and reading a text as an adapter, and, I would argue that the best adaptations, whether they be for film, television, theatre or radio, are produced by writers who have experienced their source text as both. After all, any writer who undertakes to adapt Radcliffe’s text must possess a complex understanding of what it means to read Udolpho in all of its sprawling glory, with its convoluted plot, its repeated disruptions of narrative pace, and its wearying attention to the sublimity of its landscape, in order to begin to understand the ways in which it might best be translated into a visual medium. Of course, any writer who undertakes to adapt a novel by Radcliffe—or indeed any novel written in a time other than our own—must also inevitably accept the added challenge of teasing out the aspects of the source text which will appeal most to a modern audience. This is a fraught and complex process, in which the adapter must attempt to infiltrate the readerly-consciousness of another century, at the same time that they must understand our own cultural and aesthetic preferences. Specifically, they must undertake to explore contemporary attitudes towards the past, in order to glean what it is that repeatedly attracts us to its fictional re-representation in film and television.

This is a daunting undertaking for any adapter, and, when I undertook to write my own of adaption of Udolpho, I found it very helpful to break the process down into achievable steps. I read Radcliffe’s text carefully, noting down sections of the novel which I thought to be particularly translatable to the screen. In doing so, I made a brief synopsis, or chapter break-down, in which I outlined the most important events of the novel. Next, I began to think about the structure which my adaptation would take. For this part of the process, I made a scene-by-scene break down of the entire series, laying out all of the major action of each episode. For me, the actual composition of the script was the most enjoyable and engaging part of the process. It provided me with a new and dynamic way with which to engage with Radcliffe’s text, not only as a reader, or as a literary scholar, but also as a writer, and I began to understand the process of adaptation as a form of creative literary criticism, in which I could literally open up a writerly dialogue with Radcliffe’s text.

Through this dialogue, I was able to extrapolate my own scenes, characters, and narrative structure from Radcliffe’s text, in which I felt I was contributing to an ‘ever changing, ever developing’ Udolpho. (Cardwell 14). Here, I would like to turn to the excerpt above. This scene was taken from a single paragraph in Radcliffe text (see below), which directly precedes the moment in which Emily witnesses St. Aubert crying over a miniature portrait of an unknown woman in his study, before they embark on their tour of the Languedoc:

‘They retired early to their chamber on the night before their departure; but Emily had a few books and other things to collect, and the clock had struck twelve before she had finished, or had remembered that some of her drawing instruments, which she meant to take with her, were in the parlour below. As she went to fetch these, she passed her father’s room, and, perceiving the door half open, concluded that he was in his study…’ (Radcliffe 25).

As you can see, my scene opens much in the same way as Radcliffe’s, with a description of Emily packing for her impending trip. I wanted this scene, however, to function as a pivotal moment within the adaption, through the way in which it depicts the last moment in the narrative before Emily’s opinion of her father is cast into doubt over the identity of the woman in the miniature which excites so much emotion in St. Aubert. In order to do this, I used the beginning of the scene to evoke a sense of the eerie, foreboding atmosphere which pervades the rest of the novel, and which only comes into full force after Emily is situated along the familiar Radcliffean plot trajectory of innocence to experience after she leaves her childhood home.

The biggest point of departure from Radcliffe’s text in this scene comes at the moment in which Emily is jolted out of her busy packing by a portrait of her mother on the mantelpiece, which causes Emily to remember a moment many years ago with her father, in which he presented Emily with the portrait as a keepsake of her mother. The scene then flashes back fifteen years, and depicts this exchange between Emily and her St. Aubert. I chose to employ a non-linear narrative here in order to better integrate the revelatory secrets of my adaptation into the main plot, at the same time that it would help to guide the audience’s expectations regarding the connection between the black veil and Emily’s mother.

Significantly, Radcliffe employs several instances within her text which foreshadow the appearance of the black veil at Udolpho. Emily, for instance, wears a black veil to her father’s funeral (82), and Dorthée, Emily’s servant at Chateau le Blanc, throws a black veil over Emily in the apartment of the Chateau’s deceased marchioness (492). As the plot device of the black veil has become the most well-known feature of any of Radcliffe’s novels to survive through to our own time, I wished to retain Radcliffe’s foreshadowing of the veil, at the same time that I wished to focalize the image within my adaptation in order to forge a direct link between the black veil and the terrifying fate of Emily’s mother; imprisoned by Montoni in a chamber behind a black veil at Udolpho for twenty years.


Works Cited

Cardwell, Sarah. Adaptation Revisited: Television and the Classic Novel. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. New York: Dover Publications, 2004.


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