Hazel McHaffie

My Sister’s Keeper

Dickensian arguments

I imagine lots of authors dream of having their books turned into films. What better way to bring them to the attention of thousands? Get those sales figures sky rocketing. Reach a different kind of audience. Become famous. Get rich.

And yet adaptation is a topic that generates strong feelings in the other direction. Books are always deeper and somehow better … films rarely square with imagined characters … I’m always disappointed when I see the film; It never lives up to the book version … along those lines anyway.

I’d certainly fear the loss of essential elements in my own novels were Hollywood to come calling (less snorting on the back row). That’s not to say it’d be a big ‘No’, but we all have a keen sense of the ‘big idea’ (as they say in the advertising world) behind our stories. We know our characters inside out, we’ve lived with them, inside them even, for years, and we want filmmakers to be true to them. But there are no guarantees.

Allow me to illustrate. Years ago I read Jodi Picoult‘s book, My Sister’s Keeper, and enjoyed it. This time she was exploring my field of interest, raising awareness, doing superbly what I was trying to do in my own little corner. Then I saw the film and was terribly disappointed. The characters weren’t at all as I knew them. In particular the lawyer, Campbell Alexander, to whom the main character, Anna, turns for help in suing her parents for rights to her own body. Campbell’s a key figure in the book and we’re in suspense throughout wondering … why does he have an assistance dog? What is his problem? Why does he give every person who inquires a different answer? But his humour, his ingenuity, his vibrancy, is completely missing in the film. So for me that didn’t work.

However, for lots of people who only saw the film, it could well have been their first and only introduction to the challenges surrounding creating saviour siblings. That has to be good. Many will never know what literary pearls they’re missing. Those who subsequently read the book, will only find their awareness enriched.

I would argue that books and films are different art forms, trying to do different things, reach different audiences. There’s something special about immersing oneself in the written word, conjuring up scenes and characters in one’s imagination, feeling the emotions as they slowly, slowly unravel on the page. But stand – or should that be sit? – back and watch the skill of actors who do the hard work, the interpretation, for you – watch the effect of the brooding silences, the shy glances, the touch of hands – in seconds they can convey a world of feeling hard to describe in pages of words. And we’ve seen that par excellence in the current dramatisation of War and Peace on BBC One on Sunday evenings at the moment.

Now, I admit, I don’t know what I’m missing by watching Andrew Davies‘ TV adaptation of Tolstoy‘s epic tale; I’ve never got around to tackling the tome itself. But I like to think it has now become more accessible to me. If Davies has been sufficiently true to the original I’d have a better sense of the story lines, the context, the many interwoven characters. Maybe one day ….? But of course they will now look like their film counterparts from the outset!

I have read Dickens and Austen and Trollope, those classics which are trotted out and reinvented time and again. They may be regular features on the school curriculum reading lists but I for one never tire of them. So I was delighted to see a brand new take on our old favourite, Dickens, currently showing on BBC One too: Dickensian.

This is no rehash of the same story. It takes a bold leap and weaves together lots of his characters and story-lines. And sews them into a classic murky London setting with plenty of pea-soupers, dim lantern-light, Christmas snow and doubtful morals. Delicious.

So, for example, we all know Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day, forever wearing her bridal gown. In Dickensian we see a plausible back story; she’s being wooed by an unscrupulous scoundrel. We know it’ll all end badly, but we’re fascinated to watch the seduction, the power the seducer also wields over her weak homosexual brother, her struggle to be a businesswoman in a man’s world. She takes on extra dimensions in the process.

Other old favourites are exactly themselves as we know and love them. Sarah Gamp – a gin-swilling ‘medical person’, wheedling a tipple out of anyone who crosses her path. Ebenezer Scrooge – the quintessential miserly curmudgeon, but in this production, fleshed out, in action, antagonising all he comes into contact with. Bob Cratchit – absolutely true to the original with his huge heart and devotion to his family. Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Nancy, Bill Sikes, the motley band of child pick pockets – they’re all there, scurrying around in the nether regions of Victorian London, relying on their wits and criminal loyalties to avoid the noose and the inspector’s wrath. Mr and Mrs Bumble, Inspector Bucket, Jacob Marley … a cast of hundreds. Just like Dickens’ stories.

It’s compelling stuff. Some reviewers have questioned whether it’s worthy of 20 episodes; apparently audiences have tailed off significantly. But for me it has rekindled my love of Dickens, made me want to start all over again reading the books! So I’m not one to scoff at film adaptations. Hollywood, if you’re listening ….

 

 

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Screenwriting

To my chagrin I must admit that I rarely note, almost never remember, the name of writers who are deputed to convert books into film scripts. Shame on me indeed; I more than most should value and acknowledge the work of my fellow writers. But just think for a moment … how many become household names? Very few, I’d suggest.

One notable exception though, as of this week, is Sarah Phelps, the lady who was commissioned to turn JK Rowling‘s The Casual Vacancy, into a 3-part TV programme for the BBC (part 1 scheduled last Sunday evening.)The Casual Vacancy She featured in the media, even appeared in person on the Breakfast sofa. And the newsworthy aspect was … ? She had been bold enough to change the ending of a hugely-hyped book by one of the most famous writers in the world. Wow!

Now, if you haven’t read TCV, let me tell you, giving it a different ending is a big deal. A very big deal. I reviewed the novel on this blog ages ago, and commented on how bleak and miserable it was, and how it all ends in tragedy for Krystal, the one young girl we were rooting for.  Well, unlike me, the screenwriter wanted a happier ending; the existing one would lose the viewers she reckoned. So she changed it to something more redemptive. More than that, she was singing the praises of JK Rowling who had been gracious and understanding about her adaptation. And hats off to JKR indeed. That’s some concession. (OK, OK, I know, the cynical amongst us might also add: and all good publicity!)

But it got me thinking. How would I have responded to someone tinkering with my carefully thought-through storyline, I wonder? I’d be pretty sensitive at the very least. Proprietorial? Possibly. Generous enough to accept the screenwriter’s judgement and wisdom? I don’t know. Depends on what was involved, I guess, how much narrative integrity was at stake.

That led me to think of other adaptations. Personally I’m always rather ambivalent about seeing a film or play of a book I’ve enjoyed, mostly preferring to cling to the scenes and characters of my imagination. And my heart goes out to those authors whose stories are really distorted.

My Sister's Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper

For example, I really regretted seeing the film My Sister’s Keeper. In Jodi Picoult‘s book of the same name the lawyer’s guide dog features large – just what is he protecting his master from? The lawyer himself is very secretive about it, giving a different explanation to everyone. It’s a significant thread in the story with the truth only revealed towards the end in a dramatic court scene, but it doesn’t feature at all in the film. Then there was the ending, changed completely, outraging many readers – including me! And certain characters were either omitted or altered substantially and irritatingly.

So when a film is sensitive to the original I’m extra delighted. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was a case in point.

Birdsong

Birdsong

The Book Thief

The Book Thief

The Book Thief and To Kill a Mocking Bird (the version with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch) and War Horse were three others that didn’t disappoint. (Just click on the pictures for the official trailers.)

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

War Horse

War Horse

The people and places may look different from my imagined ones but their characters are true and the basic messages are intact. Indeed, in some ways, those penetrating looks, those sudden silences, the body language, add poignancy and emotional depth to the written word. And when that happens, I sit in awe of any scriptwriter who can capture the very essence of the story and recreate it for an entirely different medium. I’ve tried writing plays and believe me, it’s a whole different ball game from writing a novel. So when Jo Rowling says that Sarah Phelps is at the top of her game, that’s a huge tribute.

To Kill a Mockingbird

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