Xiao Ao Jiang Hu 96, which for some bizzare reason was translated as State of Divinity by TVB, is a prime example of how to just nail a Jin Yong series. Unfortunately, it is also the only one so far that has even come close to nailing the story, and is the best by default.
I saw about the first 1/3 of SoD96 before I read the book, the show got me so addicted to the story that I read the entire book in time to watch the last 1/3 of the show unfold. The story itself needs to explanation nor hype, it is simply one of the greatest, some say the greatest, story ever written with some of the most colorful and unforgettable characters you'll ever meet. For once, TVB decided to not change any part of the story and change only the parts of the story that they can't film within the budget. This enabled the series to capture some of the best scenes ever written word-for-word. There were tons of instances in other adaptations, such as CCTV's adaptation in 2001 and TVB's try in 1984, where what happened in the scene was the the same but the specific dialogue was changed or sometimes a certain, not very critical detail was left out. Not so in SoD96! For example, one of the first, and best, parts of the story was the face-off between LingHu Chong and Tian BuoGuang in a tavern over the fate of Yi Lin. While SPW84 and SoD2001 both had the important plot points and the result right, they also left out about half of the dialogue in the scene. It was clear that they missed the point of the scene, the point of the scene was not just a duel, it was to show what kind of character LingHu Chong was, and all of that was conveyed entirely through dialogue. SoD96 kept the entire conversation in tact, even the little parts where Yi Lin couldn't stop herself from snickering a little here and there. There was another scene near the end where LingHu Chong, caught off guard about the arrival of some guests, went out to greet the guests without his boots on, for which everyone present had a nice fun at.
It is that kind of faithfulness that really sets not only the plot of SoD96 apart, but also its characters. Because one can learn more about the characters and their relationship with each other in these small exchanges than in a mass crisis. This is also the reason why most people enjoy a series that's more faithful to the book than one that's not: the characters develop right. Sure, the fact that the plot is changed is annoying, but as long as the main points are hit it really doesn't matter, it doesn't matter if LingHu Chong found out Ren YingYing was a young girl by tricking her to open a door or by knocking her hat off or seeing her reflection in water, just as long as he does and reacts the right way. The thing that most people don't like is watching their favorite characters acting in a way that they know the characters wouldn't act. Like LingHu Chong getting furious at Ren YingYing for lying to him after he saw her face, a la SoD2001. There is nothing worse than to see your favorite character being portrayed wrongly.
As for the actors, Jackie Lui gave, again, by default, the best portrayl of LingHu Chong thus far. He just had the natural care-free attitude and wit that LingHu Chong possessed and was terrific as LingHu Chong. He was helped along by the script, which didn't try and play games with its characters, and especially him, by inserting random plot-lines and stupid sub-plots (like SoD2000). Fiona Leung was enchanting as Ren YingYing, pulling off the dicotomy of the shyness and the confidence of her character very well. My only complaint is to the costume and make-up crew, what is going on with her hairdo and dress? I know you are trying to suggest she's different but geez. Cherie Chan was excellent as Yue LingShan, easily portraying the part of the spoiled daddy's girl that everyone loves. The actor that played Lin PingZhi was excellent, especially considering he had to do a little more in this series than the actors in other adaptations. The show actually had a section on the budding romance between Lin PingZhi and Yue LingShan that was, surprisingly, very well written, sweet, and still stayed faithful to the book. That is another great point for this adaptation, even when they did extend the story, the did it within the framework set by the book, instead of changing the book to fit their subplots.
For the villains, the role of DongFang BuBai is given, finally, the right kind of treatment. He showed up for the first episode or so of the series and was never seen again, but often talked about or referred to, until she makes her stunning appearence near the end of the series. The effect was both dramatic and shocking, not to mention the actor that played the part was, well, fit to play the part. Zuo LengChan was another character that was depicted to perfection, from the cold, calculating moves to his naked ambition to his imposing prescence that just draws people in, it's all there. Ren WoXing was, once again, portrayed as a bearded old man with a terrible temper and a head of white hair, and excellently done so. But I always had a feeling that there was more to Ren WoXing than a bitter, old man; that underneath all that bitterness was a warm and friendly genius. None of the series I have seen so far did a good job in showing this version of him.
However, every series has had a wonderful Yue BuQun because every director/producer realized that this is the character that the story turns upon. For this role, TVB chose an actor that seemed to specialize in these half-evil half-good roles, playing such characters as WanYan HongLie in LoCH94 and YeLu HongJi in DGSD96. And, as expected, he nailed the part. Nothing more can really be said other than he was great, but not really any better than the actors in the other versions.
As for the supporting actors, Ho MeiTian was enchanting, as she always is, in a role that was perfect for her. The Tian BuoGuang character was definitely played with enough diginity (surprising word to use on a rapist) to be good. Xiang WenTian was played magnificently by a veteran TVB actor who played WanYan HongLie in LoCH83 and Genghis Khan in LoCH94. There really isn't any miscasts throughout the entire series, quite a remarkable feat.
The theme song, "Carefree Living" is not very good but does an adequate job of embodying the story (but does not draw audiences in). But somehow, TVB pulled a coup when they wrote an amazingly catchy tune for the actually song "Xiao Ao Jiang Hu". Even though the tune was way too fast, it was still a pleasure to listen to and just somehow made you feel better about the series. Then TVB did another smart thing by borrowing their background music from Ashes of Time and Braveheart. Say what you want about those 2 movies, but they have 2 of the greatest soundtracks of all time, and you'll find samples of both sprinkled throughout the series (and setting the correct mood).
Now for the complaints, and there aren't many, but they do stick out. First of all, as with all TVB adaptations, the scenery and lighting is just too fake. Watch this series and SoD2001 back to back and you'll really get a sense of fakeness with the settings in this series. Secondly, they made some out of whack decisions as to what to leave out and what stays in. The 6 Saints of Peach Valley inexplicably became the 4 Saints of Peach Valley, yet they did not bother to change a number of other things that would come to mind when you want to cut stuff out. Another thing is the custome of the sect members. While it is rather nice to see a series actually trying to coordinate the sect's uniforms, they had it all wrong. The Northern HengShan Sect (Nuns) are suppose to be in all black, the SongShan Sect are suppose to be in yellow, etc. But I guess you can't fault them for trying.
So basically that's it, SoD96 shows exactly what has to be done to nail a Jin Yong series: remain faithful to the novel and not miscast any of the characters. Of course you could change the plot, but just make sure you do not change the characters and their developments at all in relation with the rest of the story (this is much harder to do). Surprising how many adaptation fail in this regard, including every other Xiao Ao Jiang Hu adaptation. SoD2001 could be counted as an exception because it was excellent in so many other parts of the series, but when compared to SoD96, one can clearly see what is most important feature about the original that one has to keep: the characters and their developments (and by extension, the plot).