I just found out that HBO is planning to remake I, Claudius. Unless you absolutely despise any kind of costume drama, I heavily recommend the original. For those not in the know, I, Claudius is a miniseries based on two historical novels (I, Claudius and Claudius the God) by Robert Graves. The BBC adapted the novels into a 13-part miniseries and cast brilliant actors and actresses including Derek Jaccobi in the title role, Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, and John Hurt as a crazy, crazy, monstrous Caligula. And then there is Siân Phillips’s Livia, possibly the greatest villain ever to appear on television. Every scene in which Livia appears, she owns. Every scene that she’s not in, her presence overshadows all else (at least while Livia is alive; the miniseries spans a century.)
Neither the BBC miniseries nor Graves’s novels have a completely solid basis in fact. Graves heavily relied on the Roman historian Seutonius, who never found a piece of gossip that he didn’t like. Seutonius put plenty of unfounded rumors into his book The Twelve Caesars. Despite this, or more likely because of it, I, Claudius is tremendously entertaining. And let me tell, even after a Roman history class, I could not keep any of those people straight until I saw I, Claudius.
Nevertheless, I dread an HBO remake. Certainly it will have a much larger budget than the original, whose production costs were notoriously low. It is also guaranteed to be far more sexually graphic than the BBC version. One can imagine the orgy scenes being just slightly more restrained than a pornographic movie. And probably there will be more violence and gore too, which the BBC miniseries tended to shy away from.
Still, an absence of a big budget is not necessarily a fault. Because of the more restrained nature of the original (and I hasten to add that it was not exactly puritanical), the focus on story and character: i.e., good writing and good acting. In general, remakes and sequels, particularly those with much higher budgets than their originals, are notorious for being of far lesser quality than their cheaper predecessors.
Taking on I, Claudius is not an easy task. HBO’s former series Rome was set before the events of I, Claudius, yet the two were still compared to one another. As good as Rome was, it could not hold up.
Find the original. It’s worth the watch. Just remember: don’t eat the figs.