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Adaptation often, and perhaps usually, involves cutting out elements of the told in text story for conversion to the shown in sound and visuals one. Streamlining is a word that has been used for the process. Yet every now and then a novel or short story is adapted that doesn’t quite fit the minimum time period felt necessary for a movie, or whole pages of such a story are filled with thoughts, speculations and reflections that can, and must be reduced to a few seconds of what Joey, in Friends, famously called ‘sniff the fart’ acting.

That old favourite novel (or novella? One day I’ll get those two successfully differentiated in my mind) The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate is an example of a story where a little bit needed to be, tastefully, added. And I can recall, on the ‘specials’ CD of a collector’s set of Blade Runner, I think, a movie-maker saying how difficult it would be to convey the thoughts of Deckard when they can’t be translated into actions that will show how he feels!

William J. Locke’s story Ladies in Lavender, which I mentioned but didn’t explore in an earlier blog-post, is another that had to be filled out to make the full-cut of a film. The film sticks remarkable closely to the characters, actions, and situation of the short story. Andrea, the Polish virtuoso violinist is washed up on the beach of Ursula and Janet, and is taken to their house where he is looked after. Even small details of the story crop up in the film – their attempts to learn his language, his theirs; the dressing of him, the buying of the suit, the discovery of his musical talent.

Even the storyline follows the same path. The foreign young lady hears his music, and has a brother who is big in the business, and who will offer Andrea a new, and successful career. The comedy, the pathos of the two maiden ladies and their delicate, suppressed lust, the desire for love, the jealousies between them and the jealousy they both have for the young women, which they fight against for his sake: all are in the film as they are in the short story. Yet there is significant difference too, and it’s a difference that highlights the differences of the two media, and brings us back to that issue, mentioned before, of how the internal life of characters can be ‘shown’, when telling is no longer desirable. The voice over is said to kill the ‘movie’ story, and it remains a source of glee to me, I confess, whenever I see it having to be resorted to (in an episode of Bridehead Revisited, and at the end of Strick’s Ulysses, for example, and at the end of John Huston’s earnest adaptation of The Dead).

There’s more though, for there are many scenes in the film of Ladies in Lavender, and especially towards and including the ending, where what the characters, or narrator only refer to (leaving it to our perfectly well developed imaginations to create) is played out before our astonished, and unimaginative gazes.

In particular, there is the ending of the film, and the ending of the short story, which fall quite differently, not only in time and place, but in intent. The film takes us on beyond the written story’s ending, to that successful career, which is only hinted at, and not even promised in the told version, and to a reconciliation between the sisters and the wonderful boy that is entirely absent.

The short story ends with Ursula looking out to sea – where the sea air, no doubt, rather than the fart, would have to be sniffed – and realising that a subtle change has taken place in the relationship between her and her sister; thinking that she, the previously weaker of the two, must now be the one strong enough to help the other come to terms with their mutual loss. The film’s pat reconciliations are cruder, perhaps to the point of triteness, and they are accompanied by another difference, for the sisters in the story nurse not only the boy, but the photograph of the father who has bequeathed them their seaside nunnery and its lonely life. In the film, the photograph is of a younger man, lost the more to one of them, in a war that hadn’t taken place when the original story was written (Wickipedia dates it to 1908), and which is certainly not referred to in it. In fact the film explicitly dates the story to 1936, adding a whole agenda of suspicion and undercurrent to the story, turning it from a study of two specific personalities under stress in an Edwardian ambience, to one with a historical consciousness of a later period, as held in 2004.

The agenda of the film is not that of the short story, and perhaps could not have been.

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I recently watched the 1968 film, The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster. It’s based on a John Cheever story of the same name, published only a few years before. I’d read this about a decade ago, and much of the detail in the film was totally absent from my memory, not surprisingly, as it turned out, when I got another squint at the text.. The premise, and plot, is simple. Set in a vaguely dated America – filmed in Westport, Connecticut – the hero, without much introduction, and already dressed for the project, suddenly decides to ‘swim home’, by using all the pools in the gardens of his wealthy neighbours.

In both original and adaptation, that’s what, simply, he does, and as he passes through the lives and parties of those neighbours, little shafts of light, metaphorically, fall on his backstory, so that by the time he arrives home, weakened to the point almost of collapse by his journey, we are not quite surprised to find that the home stands locked and empty, the ironwork of its garage doors (in the told tale) and its gates (in the shown one) rusted.

As always, similarities and differences between the told original and the shown adaptation fascinate me. Why have such changes been made? Why have they not? Sometimes it is to do with the differing agendas of the producers of that adaptation. The First Blood adaptation, and its follow-on franchise is a good example of that. But here, with Cheever’s story, filmed in the same few years as it was written, the differences seem to be more to do with the nature of the medium into which the story was being re-cast.

The movies, as the name might imply, are about moving pictures. The short story, written down (or even remembered) is about words and what they mean to us. Movies favour action, and actions, whereas short stories favour meanings and significances.

In Cheever’s story the descriptions of the actual crossing of the pools is almost perfunctory. In one paragraph near the beginning he crosses five in as many lines. In the film the camera follows him stroke for stroke, in close up, in long shot, medium shot, trick shot, and sometimes, repeated shot! A sequence in a horse ring shows him and another character – not present in the short story – leaping the jumps over and over again. In the written tale, the ring is by passed ‘overgrown’ with the jumps ‘dismantled’.

The film is a wordy showing of the story. The original, an almost wordless telling of it, at least as far as dialogue is concerned. At several pools people do exchange words with him, but the conversations are fragmentary and hardly ever developed, passing into reported or recalled speech, dissipating into further narrative. In the film, conversation dominates, often beginning with the written story’s openings, but taking them further. Much of the narrative is retained, but re-cast in the mouth of the protagonist himself, either addressed to other characters, or as if in monologue.

Several new characters are introduced, and existing ones are examined a little more fully. Notably the twenty year old girl -in bikini, of course- who accompanies him on a section of the journey, until his interest in her becomes frightening, is a pure introduction. And so is the lonely boy with the flute, at the drained swimming pool of the Welchers.

A told story takes as many words to tell as it takes to tell, but a shown one has to run for long enough to justify the ticket price of the bum on the seat. That alone might explain the additions, and perhaps the bikini. And the told story, in this case, seemed almost like a thumbnail sketch, a hurried tale, skipping over the landscape, and barely dipping into the pools, with the conversations as truncated as the descriptions. The film, by comparison seemed slow, with its endless repetitive images of Lancaster swimming, leaping, walking down tunnels of trees. Filled out with montage shots of woodland, water, leaves, flora and fauna, none of which, to echo Hemingway’s concerns, ‘belong to the story’, the film struggles to fill its minute count.

The hurried narrative of Cheever’s tale is packed, not only with barely described actions, but with questions posed to the reader. Why does Ned Merrill do this? Why do that? What does he think? What has he forgotten? And beneath it all hangs the question of just what is his backstory, and his future? The film is a little more forthcoming, providing a hot-dog trolley that he has made, now being used by his neighbour who bought it at a sale. In both versions we get the growing inkling that not all is as it appears, that he is not what he seems to be; that his popularity is based on a past that has gone, and has worn thin to the point of antagonism for some of those he encounters.

There’s an essay on Cheever’s story in The reference Guide to Short Fiction, published by St,James’ Press, in which comparisons are made with the mythic Odyssey and later versions of it. Film struggles to do internal reasoning, the posing of questions, and speculation as to their answers. The short story can excel at it. Here’s the root difference between the two, even when the story they are both trying to convey is essentially the same. The film, being more explicit in this, loses some of the density of the short story, but even the short story, respected as it is, left me wishing there were a more tangible context for the dislocations I sensed.

BHDandMe was (were?) at Keswick’s TBTL (Theatre By The Lake) a couple of afternoons ago (one of the privileges of being an old tosser) on a trip to see Sense and Sensibility.

I’m a bit of a Jane Austen virgin. I might have read Pride and Prejudice (but I’m not sure I have – if so it was sooo long ago). I have, of course, seen umpteen TV versions of it, which no doubt capture the events, but don’t, I imagine, do anything for the language…and even the facial expressions of people today are mirror images of the faces of their own time, not of the period in which the story was set, and written.

So I came to the adaptation of S&S without a clue what, or who it was about – and yes, TBTL has won me over to reading the book. If the adaptation can be this good, the original must be, well, even better.

And the adaptation was, is good. If you get a chance to go and see it, take it.

The cast was uniformly convincing. I never doubted they were who they pretending to be even for a moment. And what a clever story..though, having encountered several hundred (possibly thousand) stories over the last few years I kinda guessed one of the ‘surprises’ that the plot springs on us. It is a clever plot though, and the play brought that out. I liked the way there was a sort of graded version of ‘love’ on display…the sort that hits you like a hurricane, the sort that grows on you (like roses….?) and the sort that you miss by a long whisker and regret forever. I suspect most of us have tried two out of the three, and possibly the full set (age, now!)

My wife, who has been a professional textile designer, wasn’t too keen on the shiny fabrics – but hey….take a look at the TBTL website here, then go take a look at the play there!

On the subject of plays BHDandMe (well, Me really, with writing buddy Marilyn Messenger) have a small play on in The Studio at TBTL on Saturday, October 20th. It might be worth going along to take a look at that too (but Jane Austen it ain’t). It’s called Telling, and is paired (or rather trio-ed) with two other short dramas. Marilyn and BHD did a collection of short stories together a while back:

 

Children don’t ask for their favourite bedtime story because they’ve forgotten what happened in it, but rather the opposite. The same is true with the films they like to watch over and over again.

But there are those who can’t read a book twice, or watch film a second time. It’s similar with places to visit. Some like always to go somewhere new; others like to go back to where they’ve been.

I’m a re-visiter, a re-reader, and a re-viewer. To not want to take another look at a film, or a book that I’ve enjoyed, or a place that I’ve only scratched the surface of, would be like not wanting to meet someone again whom I’d taken a liking to.

But re-telling stories is not the same as re-reading them. Re-making films is not the same as watching them for a second or subsequent time. Our favourite stories can sometimes be the ones that have been not only read, or watched over and again, but re-told, and re-made, and often, in the case of told stories, adapted for showing.

I’m thinking of stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There’s only one told version so far as I am aware, but there are many shown versions, beginning with Scrooge, from the turn of the century and leading to the Muppets and beyond. Such adaptations are rarely quite the same as the original – and when they are, it can be, perhaps surprisingly, quite a disappointment: a re-telling that seems only to save you the bother of imagining. More usually they are specific interpretations, sometimes so far from the original as to seem like high-jackings!

Told stories, when they are re-told rather than adapted to shown stories, might undergo similar changes, but that becomes less likely as they move from the oral to the written tradition. The printing press seemed to set a story, not only in letters but also, at least metaphorically, in concrete. Digital technologies may be breaking that down to an extent, but we’ll not see many trying to re-write Dickens’ Christmas story in their own words.

What I can imagine, and have done myself, is the taking of a story as a point of inspiration for, not so much an adaptation, as a transposition in time and place, form the world – and world-view – of the original writer to that of the re-writer. As an exercise in examining what has remained constant and what has evolved in the human experience this can offer insights to writer and readers, but even if the original story is not known to the reader the transposed version can still be a good story in its own right.

I wrote on this blog a little while ago about a theatrical adaptation of Great Expectations – by Charles Dickens (as if there were….). I thought it would be good to venture at reading the original novel. I can’t remember having read it before, and having by now read it, am sure that I would not have forgotten. I have seen various TV versions over the decades though, and in a sense could say that ‘I know the story’.

Watching the novel played out on stage with ‘real’ actors – being shown, rather than told the story – might be thought to have brought it alive, and indeed that was a sort of unconscious assumption that I made during the watching. Within a couple of chapters of reading though, I became aware, firstly, that Dickens’ own description of the marshes on which the story opens were far more vibrant in my imagination than the equivalent had been on stage – and that is not to criticise the staging.

In fact, as the told story unfolded I began to realise that it was Dickens’ words that were bringing the whole story alive in a way that its being shown could not. Neither lighting nor shadows, props nor set, costumes nor passages of direct speech taken, commendably word for word – if memory allows sufficient evidence of that – from the text, let alone ‘real’ actors, had brought the story to life quite so viscerally as did those words, of narrative, and speech and thought that Dickens gives us, one at a time and in order in the novel.

Words, of course, exist only in our minds, and not exactly, I’m sure, in each of our minds as they do in each other’s. Even within that limitation though, what Dickens meant by, and felt about the words he chose has a resonance with what those words mean and feel to us that trumps that of the observed parodies of reality that we see on stage. That resonance is expressed in and by our imaginations. We are not invited to imagine what we are shown, but only what we are told.  What we are shown can only be observed and analysed, well or badly. Imagination is something uniquely of our own, evoked by words that are themselves the nearest possible translations of the imaginations of their authors.

What Dickens also does , and which the theatre was perhaps less adept at doing, is telling a story about ourselves. In particular he does this at moments when Pip, his narrator, suddenly cuts through what he is telling us about himself, to what he might be saying about us. There is one especially potent example of this in Great Expectations, and I initially intended to quote it – to show how clever I am – but have decided to leave it for you to discover, and thus show how clever Dickens was.

We have to imagine what we’re told, but observe what we see.

Taika Waititi’s 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople was based on Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress. Set in the New Zealand bush both versions celebrate a strand of the Kiwi psyche, and several hundred square miles of its wilderness.

I encountered the film first, courtesy of my daughter who was living in Auckland at the time. Knowing my interest in how adaptations can change stories, it wasn’t long before the novel turned up, tracked down by my wife!

There are many ways in which, and many reasons why film makers change the stories they adapt. Technical issues, economic pressures, and the intent to put the story to the service of their own political or social agendas are the common ones. Out of the few dozen adaptations I have perused though, this one is perhaps the most unusual. The cast of the film is expanded both in numbers and in depth – the only cut is from two dogs to one, and I’m not sure whether that would be for technical or economic reasons! There are so many pigs, deer, possums (plus one Kiwi bird) and other animals killed, dismembered, cooked and eaten in the book, that I was tempted to do a headcount and list them, as was done with Peckinpah’s blood-fest Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, but really, the time required would have been above and beyond the call of this blog!

The film is nowhere near so bloodthirsty, though the two boars that are killed are killed suitably bloodily!

What the film adds are conversations and the characters to have them. Conversations from the book are expanded, new characters are added, existing characters are changed, usually to exaggerate their idiosyncrasies. Incidents are moved around, merged, or separated out. Even the two main characters, Uncle Hec and Ricky, are subtly changed, the thirteen year old part Maori delinquent seeming more competent, the tight-lipped old man seeming, perhaps less so in the book than in the film. Of course that might be because it is Ricky who tells the book’s story (apart from a chapter at the end, in which another character reflects upon the events, and speculates about the ultimate fate of the two runaways who have for a second time vanished into the bush together). An omniscient third person camera lens shows the film’s version.

Crump was hugely popular in his lifetime, and this novel was seen as his masterpiece. He too vanished into the bush from time to time and Uncle Hec might be seen as a proxy for him, both as a bushman, and as a sociopath. Writing a preface to the novel one of Crump’s sons refers to Crump as having a ‘sidekick ….. not a woman but a nine year old Maori boy’, and dates the encounter to around the time the book was first published. He refers also, to his own difficulties in relating to the eccentric Crump: ‘I never lived with my father’. ‘They were very relaxed and comfortable with each other, which is more than I can say for the old man and me;’

In fact if Hec is the proxy for Crump that anti-social streak must have been strong, and the fact that the author was described as a ‘great storyteller’ doesn’t really gainsay it. Telling stories, writing them, can be a way of distancing yourself from people as much as and perhaps more so than, one of connecting with them.

Crump’s story sees boy and uncle flee into the bush to avoid the boy being sent back into the Welfare system, and for nineteen months they evade detection and capture despite a developing hue and cry. The incidents of the story are mainly about the hardship of the trail, the repetitive killing of the game they live on, and the avoiding, where possible, of any human contact.  There’s an awareness to Crump’s book though, that is irrelevant to the film, and in the fact that, as Ricky’s narrative makes clear, survival is based, not only on the animals they hunt, but also on the supplies they find, left for emergencies in the various park huts that they visit – and also, to some extent, to the gear they steal from other ‘trampers’. Crump knew what it was to live in the bush, and presumably knew its limitations. The film doesn’t need to make the point, though it does show us the two fugitives finding, and using supplies in such huts. In fact, apart from the long period of Hec’s recuperation from a broken foot they sleep in huts probably as often as they camp out in both film and novel.

Crump’s style is described as ‘direct’ and ‘simple’, and even compared to Hemingway’s, as being ‘minimalist’. There’s a flatness to the story telling, that shows in descriptions of making a billy of tea being no less exciting than experiencing an earthquake, and vice versa. The pace doesn’t vary, the tension never seems to rise or to be resolved. Perhaps this is Crump attempting to capture the boy’s voice, or perhaps it reflects the way he saw the incidents that fill the book, and maybe how he experienced those which, presumably filled his own periods of bush-time. It’s almost as if a depressive were telling the story, certainly a detached narrator.

There was no sense, for me of any rising crescendo, no story arc, though there is a climax of sorts, just before the two fugitives decide to hand themselves in. I have often found that the ‘middles’ of stories can be more malleable, their component parts more easily switched around, than could the beginnings or endings, that it is only detail within those middles that needs to be sequenced carefully. In this story that is, I believe, especially true. The order in which the various creatures are slaughtered, the rains experienced, even that earthquake, do not seem to contribute to the development of an idea, or an outcome. That isn’t to say that there is no idea, but to find it, you have to look at the conversations between Hec and Ricky, and the reflections upon them that pass through the boy’s mind. My first reflection after finishing the book was that these conversations had been few, and relatively short, but re-reading showed that to be a false impression. In fact, Hec and Ricky talk quite often, and sometimes for a more than a page. It’s the limited depth of their conversations, perhaps, that gives the impression  of brevity and infrequency.

The incidents into which these conversations are embedded, I found as tedious, and for similar reasons, as watching somebody else’s holiday movies. If you’re into stalking and shooting and skinning and gutting and cooking on an open fire, I can imagine the story might entertain you with that for longer than it did me, but it’s interesting that Waititi chose to dump most of that stuff, having paid a lip service to it. One of the most remarkably ‘alive’ sequences of the book, comes at the end, when the sheep-station manager who has befriended the pair (and talked them into giving themselves up), describes his first encounters with them. He is graphic on their condition, which contrasts so powerfully with the story Ricky has told, that one begins to wonder if Crump had deliberately flattened that narrative voice, deliberately blunted its perception of what was really happening. It’s a technique that I could see working well in a short story, but over nearly two hundred pages of a novel, it must be a high risk strategy.

The sheep station manager, Robby Barton’s chapter is another first person narrative, and in a recognisably different voice. Here’s a sample of what he tells us about the two ‘bushmen’ after a year in the wilderness.

 

‘They were both dressed in rags tied around them with strips of torn cloth and flax……the boy’s trouser-leg had frayed off above the knee and                                 the leg was covered with old bruises and scratches……And they stank. Badly. Both of them.’

 

The film offers nothing like this description of the protagonists. They are never that ragged, that dirty, that unkempt. They are never desperate in the way that the book shows them to have been. Barton’s character and its viewpoint are not in the film.

There are two major elements the film brings to the story that are clearly not in the novel. Most obvious is the chase and shoot out sequence near the end, in which armoured vehicles and soldiers with automatic weapons pursue the fugitives, with Ricky driving a stolen car, across some sand flats. It’s a Keystone cops sort of chase, a spoof shoot out, and there’s nothing remotely like it in the novel.

The other addition is less extreme, but becomes a fundamental thread of the film’s story. This is the introduction of two characters, that will represent the pursuing authorities throughout the film. They add a humour that I didn’t find anywhere in the book. One is a world weary and cynical, though kindly, policeman, and the other is a Child Welfare Officer. They make a comic duo, with him constantly undermining, and commenting on her. She becomes more manic as the story progresses, making a comic rather than a sinister ‘baddy’, and the focus of the story, because of this duo’s repeated appearance, shifts from the two fugitives to the wider world from which they try to escape. In fact the whole film turns more towards the pursuers than the novel ever does, giving them more story time, more dialogue, and more actions – all of which have a comic tinge, lacking in the book. As a cameo role, this is most notable with the character Psycho Sam who replaces the book’s more mundane Quiet Brian. The names, and the change of names nicely encapsulates the difference between book and film, and implies the reasons for the changes.

Another addition is Kahu, who conflates separate elements of the book. She rides, with Ricky hanging on, to the house where she and her father are staying, and where there is a phone that Ricky can use to call in help for a sick man. Ricky spends the night with them, while Hec remains at a park hut, looking after the invalid. In the book’s equivalent Ricky goes only as far as the hillside above a house to yell for help, and refuses the offer to come down. In the book, the overnight stay becomes a prolonged one, much later in the story, with the sheep station manager. In the book it is he who rides the horse. Film makers extract small details that they presumably like, and recombine them in quite different ways to the original.

It seems to me that in this adaptation, the director has taken a popular story and recognised that it could not be merely transcribed to the screen. Yet he has not brought any new agenda to it, and the changes have not been for technical or economic reasons. Adding characters, and armoured vehicles would cost money, not save it, and there would have been no technical difficulty in showing the deaths and processing of dozens of animals. It would, however, have been simply boring. A way had to be found to make the story interesting: to make the events in the book into a story, because the story in the book is carried, between the events, in the relatively few exchanges between Hec and Ricky, and in the thoughts that Ricky has about their relationship.

Cinema audiences (and readers) are interested in the situations of their characters, but also in how characters react to those situations, and to each other. It is those reactions, and conversations that the film has focussed on, cutting out the detail of the events into which the book has embedded them. Crump wrote a book called Bastards I have met, and is cited by the anonymous commentator of the second preface to Wild Pork and Watercress as believing that ‘bastards’ outnumbered ‘heroes’ by 15,000 to 1. The simplistic division of people into these two stereotypes (perhaps among others) seems to underlie the story, and though the film goes a little deeper, none of the characters are more than caricatures, and even Ricky and Hec do not develop much beyond gaining a grudging respect, and liking for each other.

There are many stories in which characters are pitted against a wilderness, but few, in my experience where they are not trying to survive in order to reconnect with other people. In this story, in both versions, the protagonists’ intent is always to limit, and if possible avoid human contact, even with those whom they believe are trying to help them. Even their own relationship seems tainted with this attitude. Curiously, this element reminded me of Frank Herbert’s Soul Catcher, which I wrote about recently, for in that wilderness novel one of the features of the relationship between the boy and his Indian captor, is that the Indian distrusts the language connection between both him and the boy, and between the boy and the natural world. He is forever rebuking the child for speaking, rather than silently observing and listening. Even where the point is not being explicitly made, it would seem, language and how we use it is an issue of the stories we tell (even when we are showing them). I’m tempted to say that Taika Waititi’s story is better than the one Crump told, but that would be unfair. Crump’s told story gains from the richness of its readers’ imaginations, but Waititi’s shown one has to depend on what we see and hear. If you’d like to read more about adaptation, Take Two, how adaptation changes stories by Mike Smith is available here

Went to Keswick yesterday afternoon. Saw Great Expectations.  Tilted Wig & Malvern Theatre know their Dickens, and how to do it.

Dickens knew how to make stiff-upper lipped moustachioed and bearded men in starched collars and cumberbunds cry. He made them weep bucketloads, over Little Nell, over Oliver Twist, over relatives who died too young, wives who were the wrong woman, lovers who went unrecognised for too long. He knew how to make young women faint in their crinolines and tight corsets. He even set fire to his stage once, but not like this.

It’s only on for three days more – the play – if you can get there, clear high water, risk tides, don’t wait for time. Meet Magwitch on the marshes. No-one does melodrama like Dickens does. There’s even a reference, like a whiff of smoke, to the Blacking Factory – no guys, it wasn’t missed!

Nothing to fault, but one thing to say, don’t go for a quiet relaxing afternoon – go ‘cos you’re up for going through a wringer, and will be wrung out, exhausted, drained, the way Dickens wanted you to be. Bravo. Encore.

The lighting was spot on (no floods over the marshes). The costumes were clever. The switches, of character and set, swift and neat. The climbing-frame of a set boxed the players in, and opened the story out. Narrative, some say, kills an acted story dead, but don’t believe it, stories a plenty were told in this, and as it should have been. Loved it. Dickens loved a play. He would have loved this, I think.

I finally got around to reading Isak Dinesen’s short story, Babette’s Feast, the filmed adaptation of which I wrote about on this blog a couple of months ago.

It is one of those adaptations that saves you the trouble of imagining the story, rather than being one that brings a new agenda to it. There are changes. The short story is set in a Norwegian fjord, which evokes an enclosed place for me, whereas the film is set in Jutland, where the village houses are plonked down on a flat coastal plain like children’s toy houses on a grey-green cloth. Curiously this echoes Dinesen’s words: ‘the small town of Berlevaag looks like a child’s toy town of little wooden pieces’.

Dinesen’s toys are ‘painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colours’, but the film, it seemed to me, veered away from such brightness, sticking to its greys and dull greens and heavy browns, with the houses a dirty, light absorbing, rather than light reflecting, white. The film is heavy with shadow too, from which the sparkling highlights of candle flame on cutlery and reflections in cut glass shine brightly.

The echoes of the film’s dialogue were strong, making me wonder just how precisely the actual direct speech of the story had been lifted, and seamlessly added to! What struck me most forcibly though, was the distance of the narrative voice, seemingly greater than that of the camera lens in this instance.

Rather than eavesdropping and witnessing a series of events, as to a large extent we must do with a ‘shown’ film, Dinesen’s narrator simply tells us a story, and even when its characters speak out loud, we are unlikely to forget that it is the narrator who is passing those words on.

An exercise I’ve done with a Hemingway story sprang to mind – where I separated out the direct speech from the rest, producing two not quite parallel stories, each of which told not quite the whole story! In that story the word count of direct speech was about a third of the whole. Here, in Babette’s Feast, I would guess it at significantly less than a tenth. What direct speech there is falls isolated among the narrative, often qualified, before or after, by the narrator’s commentary upon it. Full dialogue, where characters speak to each other – rather than having individual statements from them relayed to us – are few and rarely protracted. Two or three exchanges, between two or three characters is the most we might expect.

Yet at the end of the story, which is split into 12 ‘chapter headed’ sections, the pattern is broken.

Babette’s Feast is a rich tale, of time, and reflection, regret, and transcendence, in which three main characters, the two maiden sisters, Martine and Phillipa, and General Loewenhielm see, reassess, and see beyond the failures and disappointments in their lives.

A fourth character, appearing for one of those sections, and later writing a letter that triggers the arrival of the eponymous heroine, is really no more than an elaborate plot device, and Babette herself is not so much a character study in her own right, as a catalyst for our understanding of the significance of what has happened to those other characters.

It’s an age thing I think, to some extent, but the film brought forth tears, and the book brought forth more of them! In both cases, it was the words spoken by the characters, rather than the authorial nudges, that caused the reactions.

In that final section Babette and the two sisters have the longest exchange of spoken words in the whole story, a dialogue that spreads over nearly five pages of a forty plus page story in my paperback edition. Here the proportions of speech to narrative are virtually reversed, and it is what these three characters say, finally, and to each other, that carries the burden of what Isak Dinesen is saying to us.

Someone’s been reading A Portrait of the Artist on Radio4, in one of those sad, reflective, serious voices that out-Bennets Alan of that ilk.

To be sure, we Did the novel at school. Burton Upon Trent Boys Grammar School, which to my shame I didn’t even think of burning down at the time, let alone attempt!

I got the sense that our English teacher – who was one of the good guys – didn’t know what to make of the novel, and I recall that he said as much. But I came back from a summer holiday before the A levels reeking of William York Tyndall’s A Reader’s Guide To James Joyce (Thames & Hudson, 1959/1968 –still on my shelves, heavily taped, and annotated), which turned me from a blank bemused to a full-on enthusiast for this writer’s fiction.

Hence my 2000 mile bucket-list round trip in 2016 to see, but not be seen to see, the statue of that old artificer on the bridge over the Grand Canal in Trieste.

Hearing the mournful rendition of the story though, brought back my pre-Tyndall despair. What a tedious and sanctimonious book it can appear to be, taking itself too seriously, and being taken that way by readers, and perhaps by listeners too. Its charred predecessor, Stephen Hero, which Joyce put to the fire and somebody else had to rescue had an even more self-obsessed eponymous protagonist – and an author that had yet matured enough to recognise him for what he was.

A Portrait, though, is made of more ironic, and subtly comic stuff. It is James Joyce, not celebrating, but satirising the narcissistic youth he grew out of being.

Something that has interested me for many years has been the way that some films seem to change the agendas of the original stories from which they are adapted. I first noticed this with the story Roller Ball Murder, the film of which seeming to celebrate the sort of ‘entertainment’ that the short story appeared to satirise. Even more noticeable was the difference between that novel of personal competition, First Blood, and the film that followed ten years later, in which those personal stories had been turned into a conflict about the treatment of Vietnam Vets.

Over the years I’ve written about many articles about text to film adaptations where differences seem to be about more than technical difficulties or cost cutting, and now have gathered together more than twenty of them for publication in paperback and for Kindle: Take Two, How Adaptation Changes Stories is now available online, here.