Hazel McHaffie

saviour siblings

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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Playing God

Playing GodAs a writer in the field of medical ethics myself, it behoves me to know how others portray these issues in fiction, whether they be script writers or novelists, so I’ve been keeping a tally for many years now.

The authors and editor of Playing God: Talking about Ethics in Medicine and Technology have clearly travelled a similar path, and it was this little book recently that took me back to my lists and collection of DVDs.

The sheer number of films surprised me, so by way of a change I thought I’d give you a summary of those I’ve noted which contribute an angle on the topics that fascinate me – alphabetically rather than supposed order of importance. Where possible I’ll link to the official trailers to give you a glimpse of what they’re like.

 

 

abortion:

Vera Drake

The Cider House Rules

assisted conception:

Seeds of Deception

Maybe Baby (link to trailer not permitted in the UK)

cloning:

The Island

Godsend

decisions about treatment:

Dying Young

The Theory of Everything

dementia:

The Notebook

Iris

Away from Her

The Savages

Still Alice

disease control:

Formula for Death

drug use/misuse:

Limitless

Color me Perfect

euthanasia/assisted death:

The Sea Inside

Million Dollar Baby

Amour

human experimentation:

Extraordinary Measures

The Manchurian Candidate

A Clockwork Orange

The Stepford Wives

medical paternalism/informed consent:

First Do No Harm

mental illness:

A Beautiful Mind

A Dangerous Method

All She Ever Wanted

Rain Man

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Silver Linings Plaything

organ transplantation:

Coma

Dirty Pretty Things

 patient rights and medical malpractice:

Talk to Her

research malpractice:

Mortal Fear

saviour siblings/designer babies:

My Sister’s Keeper

Gattaca

Wow! I’d have really appreciated this steer when I started out! But there again, maybe I value them more because I’ve accumulated them slowly over the years. If you know of others please do let me know. Just add a comment to this post or contact me via my website. DVDs

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Special offer

STOP PRESS: Good news!

Saving SebastianYou might like to know that the Kindle version of Saving Sebastian is available for just 99p in their Spring Sale. I understand from my publisher that the sale is due to last until 21 April but I can’t guarantee it will.

For easy ordering, click on the link above or go to my Books page on this website.

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Publication day is here!

It’s a bit like buses. After waiting ages for a book to come out, two come out in one week! Yes, Saving Sebastian is actually in my hand. Looking beautiful too. A rousing cheer for Tom Bee the cover designer.

Saving SebastianDr Justin Blaydon-Green has his hands full. Three teenage daughters at home, one of whom is mixing in some dubious circles. A brilliant colleague at work antagonising the staff in his lab and dabbling in dangerous experiments. A cheery technician in the lab constantly quoting Oscar Wilde. A Nigerian couple, treated for infertility nine months ago, who’ve just given birth to twins, one of whom can’t possibly be their biological child. And now a beautiful young woman appealing for help to save her four year old son dying from a rare blood disorder. Just how far is Justin prepared to go before his world disintegrates?

Read all about it!

My publisher decided to give this book a sticker saying If you like Jodi Picoult you’ll love Hazel McHaffie. (Hmmm.)  And a challenging strapline: How far would you go to save the life of your child? I’ve just finished reading two other books from the States which adopt a similar tactic (more of that in a later blog), so my mind has been toying with the implications. But I’d love feedback from you as to whether it helps or hinders in my case. You know about my personal ambivalence when it comes to Picoult.

The second book is an extremely limited print run: Professor Devine’s Emporium.Professor Devine's Emporium

No Amazon links for this one! Thanks to DJ burning many candles into the night, the children’s story was ready for our self-imposed deadline, the first family birthday of 2012 – today! Happy Birthday, Lauren!

It runs to 119 pages and includes 151 pictures, so it’s a totally different production from the 355 pages with no pictures of Saving Sebastian. But I’m just as delighted to see it completed. And I know this one will be well received by every single person who gets a copy!

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IVF – a luxury or a right?

It’s odd how when your mind is steeped in a particular subject you see related things everywhere, isn’t it?

As part of preparing for the publication of Saving Sebastian I’ve been thinking a lot about fertility treatments, the rights and wrongs, benefits and risks, should we-shouldn’t we? Because as well as working on the book itself, I’ve had to bend my mind to the assorted peripheral tasks that dog any writer – publicity and marketing, updating my website, events, that sort of thing. Not nearly as much fun as the creative writing but just as necessary, I’m afraid. Anyway, I was deep into drafting questions for bookclubs, and challenges for teachers and students of related subjects, when lo and behold, two articles jumped out at me.

One was a news item saying that a Brazilian fertility expert – the very one who helped the famous footballer, Pelé, become the father of twins – is suspected of having deceived patients at his Sao Paulo clinic into raising children who were not biologically their own by implanting other couples’ embryos to boost his success rates. Wow!

And why did this leap out and sock me between the eyes? Because in Saving Sebastian, a Nigerian couple have twins through IVF – one black, the other coffee coloured – and there’s a big old stooshie going on in the fertility centre to establish just what went wrong. Was it deliberate? Was it a genuine mistake? Is there something else lurking in the undergrowth? Too bad real life beat me to it, eh? If my publisher had stuck to the original publication date of 1 May my novel would have been out a fortnight before this Brazilian story broke. Heigh-ho.

The other sucker-punch was by Daily Telegraph columnist, Dr Max Pemberton (16 May). He starts by saying he thought long and hard before writing this particular article because he knew he’d attract condemnation. OK, I’m listening, Doc. The gist of his argument – please note his not necessarily mine (I want to keep my powder dry meantime!) is
– the NHS is strapped for cash
– hard decisions have to be made about how to use limited resources
– there is now an expectation that the NHS will provide fertility treatment on demand and the belief that everyone has a right to be a parent
– childlessness is not a disease but a grief based on people being unable to have what they want
– in these straightened times life-threatening and debilitating diseases should take precedence
– therefore, he concludes,  ‘IVF is a luxury the NHS just cannot afford‘.

And the relevance of this piece? Well, in Saving Sebstian, Yasmeen and Karim Zair are fighting to have a baby by IVF who is the same tissue type as their son, Sebastian. The little lad has a rare blood disorder from which he will die if he doesn’t get stem cells from a saviour sibling. And already he’s having punishing treatment to keep him alive. At four years of age … imagine! Should they be allowed to have this treatment? There are plenty of people opposing them. What do you think?

Maybe reading the book will help to crystallise your own thinking so you can agree or disagree with Max Pemberton more logically. But in the meantime please do have your say on my blog if your dander is up, steam is exploding out of your ears, and you feel like adding to the debate right now! You can always publish an addendum or a retraction later. Remember …

The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind (William Blake).

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Pruning time

I love acers – or maple trees. We have quite a number in our garden, including until this year a whopper at the front of the house.Established maple tree

So it was troubling when this one started to show signs of unhappiness about three years ago. It energetically sprouted lovely fresh growth in the spring, but then leaves shrivelled prematurely, whole branches eventually gave up the unequal struggle.

We treated it lovingly with judicious pruning, extra nourishment. Diagnosis? Apparently it’s acquired a fungus. Something to do with blue rings …?

Anyway, this spring (well, what appeared to be spring at the time) it went bananas, new shoots appearing in abundance everywhere … except along the latest branches to die off. It was sending out such a powerful message of hope that we decided to give it one last chance. It had the pruning of its life!

And at the moment it’s looking fabulous. Fingers crossed …

Why am I talking about trees in a blog predominantly about ethics and writing? Answer: because I’m also pruning drastically at the computer. With the recent advice of my editor for Remember RememberCut! Cut! Cut! – still reverberating in my ears I’m now ruthlessly shortening the next book too. This one’s about saviour siblings – currently called Saving Sebastian. (I always need a working title.) It’s been written for ages and had several edits before now but this time … it’s like the maple, time for radical treatment.

But I’m attached to this text, as I am to the maple. If I stick at it too long I just go along with the storyline and forget the red pen. Short brutal stints are the order of the day. In between, Dr Harold Klawans’ book, Newton’s Madness, is providing therapy with its fantastic accounts of patients with neurological disorders; short self-contained chapters which fit in nicely. Did you know that Sir Isaac Newton suffered from bouts of madness caused by mercury poisoning? Or that there’s a big question mark over Creutzfeldt’s role in the identification of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease? Or that bubonic plague ravaged Italy sixteen times during the 12th to the 14th Centuries? You do now! A fascinating read.

And by way of very light relief … ahah! I found a copy of Jodi Picoult’s book, Handle with CareHandle with Care, in the Christian Aid Book Sale I told you about last week. It’s about a family suing for the wrongful birth of a child suffering from osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease). So I’m reading that to remind me of how successful some people can be with writing books about ethical dilemmas.

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