How ‘The Buccaneers’ Breathes New Life Into an Unfinished Edith Wharton Novel
In 1938, just a little over a year after Edith Wharton’s death, the Pulitzer Prize winner’s publishers posthumously released her final, incomplete novel: The Buccaneers, about a group of rich, young American women who take on late-19th-century London society. The New York Times wrote that while the published version contained hallmarks of Wharton’s taut writing, “the characters seem mere sketches,” and “its dramatic finale lacks the visualized vitality it would have received from Mrs. Wharton’s pen.”
In the decades since, others have attempted to bring more shading to The Buccaneers. The author Marion Mainwaring published a completed version of the story in 1993; two years later, the BBC coproduced a miniseries starring Carla Gugino and Mira Sorvino. Now it’s Apple’s turn. On Wednesday, Apple TV+ unfurls the first three episodes of its new Buccaneers adaptation. “It made me feel more of a responsibility to her as a writer that she hadn’t been able to finish it,” creator and executive producer Katherine Jakeways tells Vanity Fair. “I didn’t want to do anything that she would disapprove of.”
This Buccaneers is one for the Olivia Rodrigo generation. The cast features a group of fresh-faced actors like Kristine Froseth, Alisha Boe, and Josie Totah, who you may remember from teen shows such as 13 Reasons Why, Looking for Alaska, and the Saved by the Bell reboot, as well as even fresher faces Imogen Waterhouse, Aubri Ibrag, and Mia Threapleton. Some of the plot has been updated for 2023 viewers; the emotional angst has also been cranked up, heightened by a bumping soundtrack of pop-rock girl anthems from the likes of Taylor Swift, Gracie Abrams, Sharon Van Etten, and Miya Folick.
“Those girls, on the page, feel like the kinds of girls that you would want to be friends with. The kind of girls you know and already feel very modern,” Jakeways says. “[Edith Wharton had] done a lot of that work for us actually, I think. I feel very indebted to [her] for having set up those characters and those stories so beautifully.”
An actor and writer who has worked primarily in comedy, Jakeways found her way to The Buccaneers through Beth Willis, a former Doctor Who executive producer with whom she worked closely on the series. “She’d been carrying the novel around with her in her bag, I believe, for at least a decade and waiting for the right time to meet somebody who she thought would have similar thoughts about it,” Jakeways says. “I went away and read it and immediately sort of fell in love with the writing in it and the characters particularly.”
Though Mainwaring’s version of the novel—which adds a number of new chapters, including a finished ending based on Wharton’s original plot outline that The New York Times Book Review called “a commendably brave pastiche”—is the most readily available today, Jakeways chose to engage only with Wharton’s original text. This telling of The Buccaneers begins with the marriage of Conchita Closson (Boe) to Lord Richard Marable (Josh Dylan). It’s Conchita’s wedding and subsequent move to England that spurs her friends—two sets of sisters, Nan St. George (Froseth) and Jinny St. George (Waterhouse) and Lizzy Elmsworth (Ibrag) and Mabel Elmsworth (Totah)—to follow her in the hopes of improving their social standing in America by participating in a London season.
Christina Hendricks’s Mrs. St. George encourages the trip and sends them off with Nan’s governess, Miss Testvalley (Simone Kirby). Once there, Nan also finds herself torn between two potential matches: charismatic Guy Thwarte (Matthew Broome) and the brooding Duke of Tintagel (Guy Remmers).
Jakeways takes a number of liberties with the original story, teasing out plots that are only hinted at in Wharton’s text and creating entirely new storylines for some of the characters, including a same-sex romance and an abusive relationship. “They’re not things that are only just appearing in our world in the last 20 years,” Jakeways says. “It’s just that we now have more language for talking about them and more capacity for being able to describe them and say what we think about them.”
Saying much more about the plot would spoil details that Apple has asked to be preserved for viewers, though many of them can be found in the pages of the novel. In fact, the first season covers only about one third of the events of the book, meaning Jakeways hasn’t yet faced the challenge of depicting an ending that Wharton never wrote. “We haven’t had to grapple with any type of ending yet—or possibly ever,” she quips, adding that she does have ideas for how to continue the series should Apple give it another season. “It’s a very rich world. It’d be nice to think that there would be more life in it.”
The Buccaneers premieres in the shadow of the Netflix smash hit Bridgerton and HBO’s The Gilded Age, and it does seem to take cues from both of those shows. But Jakeways was committed to finding ways for her series to stand apart from other period dramas, including by filming only at locations that wouldn’t be familiar to fans of the genre. “We wanted to use locations which hadn’t been seen onscreen before,” she says. “A lot of those English country houses are quite familiar to viewers of period dramas. They’re kind of like, ‘There’s that house they used for that other show.’ We wanted our locations to feel new and to feel exciting.” They wound up in Scotland, using Glasgow as a stand-in for New York and Edinburgh for London.
Though The Buccaneers isn’t the first period drama to use modern music, Jakeways also freshened up the gimmick by working with Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa to create a cohesive soundtrack that features several original songs written for the show. “It felt so right as soon as we started putting those songs over those moments,” she says. “It’s been such a revelation. I’m not claiming that we’re doing anything that nobody’s ever done before, but it does feel like it’s the thing that just makes it all make sense.”
For Jakeways, it’s all in service of adding more depth and contouring to the unfinished work that Wharton left behind. “I suppose sometimes when you watch a period drama, it can feel a little bit like you are looking at a painting, which is a picture of some people in a lovely dress sitting in a nice house that doesn’t feel anywhere like you’ve ever been,” she explains. “In all the choices that we made across the series…we wanted to make choices that would enable a viewer to feel most connected to those characters.”