For 44 years, PBS’s Masterpiece franchise has brought high-end Britain TV programs to American audiences. While the ultra-successful Downton Abbey comes from an original screenplay, many of Masterpiece’s shows over the years have been adapted from great works of literature. And the vast majority of those great works of literature, unsurprisingly, have been British.
But every so often, an American novel—like James Agee’s A Death in the Family or Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark—has been turned into a Masterpiece. On Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of Masterpiece, said she wished that the program had tackled more U.S. authors over the years. “The reasons that we haven't are twofold,” she said. “One is money, the second is money. And the third is money. Also, the dark nature of American literature, which is something to think about for a moment."
The money stuff: Hollywood has locked up the rights to most major American titles that aren’t in the public domain. That’s not the case with great British literature, partly because much of is older, written in the 18th and 19th centuries. Eaton, in her hour-long discussion of the history and future of Masterpiece, additionally said that the UK just has a more resources at the ready to make costume dramas set there: “They have all the carriages, and all the frocks, and all the locations.”