William Ivory's adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love is a vast improvement on Ken Russell's 1969 film, but so would an A-level media student's be (BBC Four, Women in Love, Thursday 31 March, 9pm). Dear Ken. He must have been delighted to think that here, at last, was an author who seemed to justify his usual approach to directing, which, roughly speaking, was "Take your clothes off and thrash about a lot." But there is far more to Lawrence than sex, as Ken would have discovered if only he had read him. Maybe I am doing him an injustice. Maybe Ken did read Women in Love and just decided to ignore it. It was the 1960s. You did your own thing, not anyone else's.
Whatever the reason, there can be little doubt that Ken took a heavyweight novel and turned it into cinematic helium. In his hands, a deeply felt exploration of existence became a piece of weightless whimsy. The great question of Lawrence's novel, how to live, was reduced to how much nudity could be fitted into 120 minutes. And Ken certainly didn't cast about for his cast. Gerald Crich, whose fair complexion is crucial to the symbolic scheme of the novel, was played by dark-skinned Oliver Reed. In one of the novel's most famous scenes, he and Alan Bates, who played Rupert Birkin, stripped off and wrestled each other for the award of worst performance. Bates won by a whisker. Reed may have skimmed the book, but Bates gave the impression of not having opened it all. Otherwise he would never have portrayed Rupert as a fop. The man is too serious, too self-conscious and too earnest to be flouncing around in a linen suit trilling aphorisms for effect. Only Glenda Jackson as Gudrun Brangwen emerged with any dignity from this morass of self-indulgence.
It's that sort of travesty that makes some suspicious of adaptations, viewing them as the lazy person's literature, designed for those who want the cultural cachet of the classics without the bother of actually reading them. Ivory's version of The Rainbow and Women in Love, which were originally conceived as one novel, would appear to strengthen the sceptic's case. There are the omissions, the invention of new scenes, the messing around with the chronology and, most exasperating of all, the decision to set the last part of Women in Love in Africa and not in the Alps. What the hell's going on? Yet these departures aren't necessarily a betrayal of the original, they are ways of translating it into a different medium.
In the novel there is an African sculpture of a woman giving birth. It represents, according to Rupert, the "ultimate physical consciousness". Gerald is disturbed by the image because he feels threatened by the instinctual life. It is something he must control. This is the meaning of him forcing his horse to remain at a level crossing while a train passes.
His constant association with whiteness signifies his inner emptiness. He does not know why he lives. It is therefore fitting that, at the end of the novel, he disappears into the snow and dies; an image, incidentally, that recalls the fate of the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
But Gerald's death in the desert is equally consistent with his character, for it represents his disintegration in the face of desires he cannot control. Ivory clearly knows his Lawrence. And he's adept with symbols. Gerald repeatedly flicks a cigarette lighter to ignite a flame in himself that he instantly extinguishes. A profound contradiction of character caught by an object kept in his pocket.
Joseph Mawle as Gerald didn't just have the right colour hair, he had a profound understanding of the character and gave an unnerving performance of a man slowly sliding into a pit. Rory Kinnear had gone back to the novel for his Rupert, "pale and ill looking", a man unsure of himself but determined to find a new way of living. Ursula, earthily played by Rachael Stirling, was the only one who attempted a Nottinghamshire accent, but it kept wandering North and getting lost, so in the end she gave up. Rosamund Pike was a chilly Gudrun, the sort of woman around whom you would want to wear an extra layer of clothing. She and Gerald took centre stage in this production, their ruthless instrumentalism a more accurate reflection of our own times than Ursula's frank appetites or Rupert's restless questioning.
And therein lies the justification of adaptations, they are a way of rewriting the past for the present, keeping us in touch with both. It's good to know that after a long period of being reviled, Lawrence is back. We know his faults. Thanks to Ivory for reminding us of his virtues.