The six-episode limited series adaptation for Netflix makes a few important changes to Sarah Vaughan's source material.
Netflix's latest limited series, Anatomy of a Scandal, which is adapted from Sarah Vaughan's 2018 novel of the same title, delves into an emotional sexual assault case centering on a political official. Because the accused is a public figure, "the public perception of behavior," as co-creator and executive producer Melissa James Gibson puts it, comes into play, raising the stakes for the outcome of the trial. However, the story is much more complex than just a courtroom drama, as themes of privilege and entitlement, secrets, and the lies we tell ourselves abound.
The story follows three key individuals involved in the case, starting with the accused himself, James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), a Minister of Parliament. He is introduced through his family, including wife (and the second key individual in the story) Sophie (Sienna Miller) and young children, as well as a a meeting with a constituent, well before the audience meets his accuser Olivia (Naomi Scott). Gibson tells Metacritic it was important to see "this charismatic, popular, and empathetic person as he was in the world, in the before times."
James then tries to get ahead of the media by confessing to his wife that he was unfaithful, although he claims it was a consensual affair.
"I felt it was important for the audience to like him from the start — that we get to see him being the brilliant politician who genuinely cares for his constituents, being a great dad, and for the most part, a good man," executive producer and director S.J. Clarkson tells Metacritic. "When we do then uncover the affair and subsequent fall out, we are left with questions. That's what made it so interesting — to really mine the nuances and complexities across the board, not just for James but all the characters, so as the narrative twists and turns, our opinions are challenged and changed as the series plays out. It's up to the audience to then decide how they feel, having hopefully a fuller and more rounded picture."
Taking a page (no pun intended) from the source material, which offers different chapters from different characters' perspectives, the limited series, too, moves in and out of the three main characters' points of view, and it also moves back and forth in time as the present-day accusations against James get compared to his behavior when he was in college at Oxford.
"All these three main characters are haunted by events that took place in the past that have shaped their lives in profound ways. And so, the way they viewed those events then, how they view them through the prism of the present, and what feels possible in terms of their identities going forward, those are all really the heart of the show," Gibson says.
(The third key character involved is Barrister Kate Woodcroft, played by Michelle Dockery, who is prosecuting James but who also has a shared past with him and Sophie.)
"There's so much in what's not said or what's meant and bubbling beneath the surface. That's the fun stuff. We would constantly challenge and interrogate where they each were — what they'd witnessed or what they were thinking [and] feeling, and whenever there was a place for the silence to do the talking, or to physically distance we would use it," Clarkson adds. "In the bedroom when James tells her about the affair, Sophie doesn't want to hear it and turns away. I echoed this by taking the sound out: At this point if she's not interested in what he's saying, then we, too, are with her."
Even though Olivia is an essential figure in the story, too, her perspective is not shared until the trial. Her accusations are instead only relayed through other characters in the beginning of the six-episode series.
"I loved the idea that we heard about Olivia but didn't meet her until the trial," says Clarkson. "For me, that made her statement on the stand all the more compelling, as we'd heard so much about her but only through dialogue/flashbacks/James' POV. It's also putting the audience with Sophie at this moment — and was played very much with that point of view in the courtroom."
As the show spends more time in the courtroom, it unravels not only the present-day accusations against James, but also travels through characters' memories to their time at Oxford, bringing to light a couple of criminal acts that were never truly punished. All the while, Kate has to keep her connection to James and Sophie secret because if it were to get out, her involvement in the trial would not only jeopardize the proceedings themselves, but also her overall career.
"It just brings in a whole other layer of trickiness, in terms of teasing out what really happened, and people feel really strongly in their perspectives even as the show forces them to question those perspectives. Of course, there is an objective legal truth at the end, but it made it messy," Gibson says.
Gibson shares that the team behind the show did consider changing the narrative from the book so Kate's secret is found out in a public way (which would have certainly added a layer to the "scandal" of the title), but ultimately opted not to make such a big alteration because "we thought that that would end the story in an unsatisfying way because the trial couldn't come to fruition and we didn't want to punish the bravery either."
"In the end, the changes we made were really to try to amplify and deepen the confrontations and the reckonings," she explains.
To that end, the show does allow both James and Sophie to "do the math" on Kate sooner. This not only makes Sophie a bit more active a character in the choices she makes once she has the knowledge of how Kate is connected to her husband, but it also provides an opportunity to connect the women in a deeper way.
Sophie, Clarkson says, has to examine her role "in enabling James to continue to act out of entitlement and half truths, her complicity in turning a blind eye. That doesn't make her a bad person...but I did think it was interesting to show a more nuanced character that wasn't, as she says in her own words, 'the long suffering wife.'"
"I feel like they have an invisible tether between them through the whole story," Gibson says of Sophie and Kate. "They're negotiating the truth and what are you going to do about it through the whole thing. We adjusted that a little bit from the book, added some key moments of recognition, and even brought people together who were otherwise brought together as a means to really explore the dynamics. It's like each of the characters inspiring the other characters to face themselves — almost daring them to face themselves on this journey."