How is BBC’s Black Narcissus different to the classic movie?

How is BBC’s Black Narcissus different to the classic movie?

BBC One’s sensuous three-part adaptation of Black Narcissus, about a group of repressed nuns who start a mission in the Himalayas, will inevitably draw comparisons with the Oscar-winning 1947 film of the same name, starring Deborah Kerr.

Both versions are heavily influenced by Rumer Godden’s classic novel, while the television series also draws on the famed cinematography from the film. But what are the key differences between the film Black Narcissus and the recent TV adaptation?

Read on to learn how BBC One’s Black Narcissus, starring Gemma Arteton, differs from the classic film.

BBC One’s Black Narcissus was filmed on location

Black Narcissus


The 1947 film Black Narcissus was famously filmed entirely in the UK, shot inside Pinewood Studios and in the sub-tropical Leonardslee Gardens in West Sussex. The painted backdrops of the mountains became synonymous with the film, as they helped create the dreamlike atmosphere.

However, the BBC One/ FX limited series was shot partly on location, with the crew filming exterior shots in Jomsom, Nepal, in addition to shooting in Pinewood Studios. Location was key for the limited series, as the beauty of the remote palace of Mopu tests all the nuns in different ways. 

Producer Andrew Macdonald, the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, the co-director of the 1947 movie, spoke exclusively to Radio Times about what author Rumer Godden thought of the original film’s setting.

“I think she was very disappointed they didn’t go to the Himalayas,” he said. “But what they did in terms of production design is still considered genius.”

Nonetheless, it meant Godden hated the “phoney” feel of a film whose Oscars, ironically, were for cinematography and art direction.

“I think she probably did, but most authors do, don’t they?” said Macdonald. “But I think she’d like this version [the BBC One TV adaptation] more because it’s more novelistic – and it’s longer, so it has more of her story.”

The casting of Kanchi 

Black Narcissus


The 1947 film Black Narcissus famously cast white British actress Jean Simmons (also known for Guys and Dolls) as the character Kanchi, a young Nepalese woman local to the palace of Mopu in the Himalayas, and who attends classes run by the nuns.

However, in the BBC version, Kanchi is played by British-Nepalese newcomer Dipika Kunwar, who praised the show’s on-screen representation during a press Q&A.

Speaking to and other press, she said: “The role is a Nepalese girl and I am from Nepal, so it’s also about representation. Finding a character that is Nepalese in a show and production from the West is rare, it comes about every now and then, and this was perfect for me and I knew I wanted it because she was – she’s a young girl who’s very simple, simplicity and innocence is her thing, and she just wants to learn –  [she’s] inquisitive – and she’s not scared of falling in love or getting hurt at all, and that’s a fun character to play with.”

Comparing the film’s version of Kanchi to the TV adaptation, she added: “In comparison to the movie, the mini-series has a lot more of Kanchi, she gets too speak and she gets to express herself, in words, as well, so that was great.”

The role of Sister Ruth

Black Narcissus
Sister Ruth (Aisling Franciosi) in Black Narcissus (BBC Pictures)


Aisling Franciosi (The Fall) has a different approach to Sister Ruth, the role previously made iconic by the red-eyed, red lipstick-wearing Kathleen Byron in the 1947 version.

Franciosi is younger than Gemma Arterton (Sister Clodagh), while Byron was born the same year as Deborah Kerr; on-screen, Franciosi plays into Ruth’s relative youth and inexperience, as she initially seeks an almost maternal, mentor-mentee relationship with Sister Clodagh.

Speaking to and other press, Franciosi said that she wanted to explore a new interpretation of Sister Ruth.

“I found Sister Ruth – without having seen the film, so completely going on the scripts and then having read the novel – a really interesting character because in the world of this religious order you are asked to strip yourself of all identity… and the psychological effects that it would certainly have on me and I could see having on Ruth, that was something I found really interesting,” she said.

“Then when I realised that the film was so iconic and so beautiful and that Kathleen Bryon[‘s] interpretation was iconic, I was little nervous, but… as with any role, an actor always has choices to make, interpretations they can explore, and [in Sister Ruth] I really found there was quite a vulnerable and fragile young woman who was grappling with this world I feel she had been thrust into, and I kind of found the story that was laid out in Amanda [Coe]’s scripts and having read the novel, that there was another interpretation to be explored of Sister Ruth, so I thought I would take the opportunity.”

Black Narcissus begins tonight (Sunday 27th December) at 9pm on BBC One. While you’re waiting visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this winter and beyond.

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