There are few maritime vessels, if any, as famous as the RMS Titanic, with the tragic nature of its sinking in 1912 continuing to captivate people over 100 years later.
The story of the Titanic has been told in many formats, with James Cameron’s 1997 epic movie of the same name undoubtedly the retelling with the greatest international renown. Cameron’s Titanic broke a string of records and therefore set a high bar for future on-screen portrayals of the passenger liner’s fate, so ITV’s 2012 Titanic miniseries was always going to be held up against the hit movie.
Taking on this already familiar story to produce this miniseries for ITV would be a daunting task for most individuals, but scriptwriting duties for Titanic fell to arguably the titanic name of British period dramas: Julian Fellowes. As creator of Downton Abbey, Fellowes’ reputation in the business of period dramas is virtually unparalleled. This makes it all the more surprising that Fellowes’ Titanic, which was commissioned to honour the 100-year anniversary of the vessel’s sinking, struggled to resonate with viewers.
This four-part series, directed by Jon Jones, sought to portray society in the 1910s with greater depth than the movie, which focused much of its narrative on the romance between Kate Winslet’s upper-class character and Leonardo DiCaprio’s lower-class character. Fellowes’ script explores both of those classes and everything in between, with its four episodes introducing viewers to almost 90 different characters. Stars in the extensive cast list include Jenna Coleman, Celia Imrie, and Toby Jones.
There was a concerted effort to showcase an alternative side of the tragic event to Cameron’s big-budget production. However, many critics were not impressed by the series. While some praised Titanic‘s efforts to humanise the tragedy by fleshing out several characters’ back stories, others felt that the series was spread too thin across too many characters. Some reviewers felt that the personal narratives didn’t leave room for the sheer chaos of a passenger liner sinking, raising questions about the need for a new television series when the 1997 film had become the definitive depiction of the tragedy.
The pop culture impact of the Titanic
It isn’t just Cameron’s 1997 movie that has contributed to the allure of the Titanic‘s story in pop culture, although it is the title that has undoubtedly hindered the prospects of subsequent attempts to recreate the tragedy on screen. That is partially why Fellowes’ Titanic series struggled to sway critics, although other Titanic media has been able to thrive given it has greater separation from Cameron’s cinematic world.
In the case of Douglas Adams’s A Starship Titanic: A Novel, the real Titanic is largely used simply for thematic inspiration. Adams is the legendary writer of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and he showed similar creativity in telling the story of a magnificent spaceship that was supposed to be the most advanced ever. Unsurprisingly, things soon go wrong for the ship. A fictionalized version of the Titanic is featured in the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. A level in the Zombies game mode takes place on the fallen ship, with its zombies and combat elements not immediately inviting comparisons with Cameron’s movie.
Not that this legacy needed much reinforcement, given that Titanic became just one of three movies to win 11 Oscars. While novels, video games, online slots, and music concerts are able to step out from the shadow of Cameron’s Titanic by offering something different, Fellowes’ ITV series was unable to succeed on this front. As a period drama, its commitment to recreating the world of 1912 should be applauded. As a drama, the series tried to shine a light on intriguing personal stories, but left viewers feeling like they’d only seen the tip of the iceberg.