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Another piece on The Blue Nib, this time from Me on the subjects of Davids Copperield, Dickensian and Iannuccian!

The changes wrought in the transformation of a story by adaptation from, usually, text to film, can be massive. Consider the transformation of the priest in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, from psychologically damaged villain, to pop music loving young bringer of reconciliation! Different agendas from the creative forces behind the different versions are being served.

But in Armando Iannucci’s fun-packed 2019 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield there are many changes that seem to represent not so much a change of view about what the story should be revealing, as a reluctance to abandon what might be seen as morsels of entertainment too tasty to lose, but not usable as they were used in the original. Look for them and you will find bits of business and snippets of dialogue lifted from one character and put into the hands or mouths of others.

One such is neither act nor word, but a mere image. That is the scar across the mouth of Rosa Dartle. You won’t see Rosa in the adaptation. The film has no such character. In the novel she is the companion of James Steerforth’s mother. She has acquired the scar, Steerforth tells us, because he has thrown a hammer at her, in a fit of temper. He makes a similar confession in the film, but in the film it is his mother who bears the scar.

It’s not the only element that Mrs Steerforth inherits from the un-adapted Rosa. There’s a speech that goes with it, in which Steerforth gives us a thumbnail sketch of, in the original, Rosa, and in the film version, his mother.


“She brings everything to a grindstone,” said Steerforth. “and

sharpens it, as she has sharpened her own face and figure these

years past. She has worn herself away by constant sharpening.

She is all edge.”


It does perhaps change our view of the mother, seeing the film after having read the book, but as its function in both versions is really to illuminate the character, and the same character, of careless villainy, in Steerforth it’s one of the most seamless changes that could be made, and it saves the price, and screen time of an actor!

There’s an examination to be made of what Rosa Dartle brings to the novel that she can’t bring to the film. And a question then to be raised about what or who brings it to the film instead of her? Or is it quietly abandoned? And if it is quietly abandoned why don’t we notice? Or do we  notice?

Noticing the presence of such little details is the first step to wondering what function they provide. What do they bring to the story? In good writing, and good film-making they are likely to have such a function. That we know there is a difference can only be because we have experienced both tellings (or have trusted someone to point it out to us).

`           This is a writer’s blog, so the lesson I draw from the observation is to look at the detail I have put into my own stories. Would that be carried across, and have to be fitted in, even if the character associated with it wasn’t going to be? And if it wasn’t, would that suggest it oughtn’t to have been in the original? What’s indispensable to the story is the story… or as Hemingway advised ‘leave out everything that isn’t the story.’

And as a reader, well, a story is only as good as what you notice about it, and that’s true of a movie-goer too!  The better observer we are, the better many a movie might seem. The better reader, the better many a book.

And of course, presumably, the worse.

Author and Narrator

Adaptation is more than the simple translation of a story from one telling into another. if it were not, it would be a poor exercise. In fact, I argue that the less is changed in the transformation, the less worthwhile the exercise. In evidence, I’d cite the film No Country for Old Men, which is so ‘faithful’ to Cormac McCarthy’s novel that the only purpose it serves is that of saving you the trouble of imagining what his words mean.

An adaptation is always a self-aware, self-proclaiming, overt transformation of a named original story. Where it does not make plain its source, we have a different word for it. An example would be Shakespeare in Love, which, until readers of the obscure but unforgotten novel on which it was based pointed out the similarities, appeared to be an original story (it drew heavily, and remarkably obviously, on Brahms and Simons’ comic novel, No Bed For Bacon).

An adaptation must bring something to the story that will be appreciated in relation to the original, as well as being enjoyed for its own sake. Some adapted fruit falls far from the tree: Apocalypse Now is a long way from Heart of Darkness, but the connections are there when you look. Some adaptations overturn the author’s agenda, as in the film, Chocolat. Others extract a single strand from a novel’s rope. John Irving did as much with the screenplay of his own novel, The Cider House Rules.

Trying to find a metaphor for Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, and to get a grip on what that adaptation was bringing new to Dickens’ story, I thought of that (author’s favourite) novel as a smorgasbord from which a single plate of dainties had been picked, to be enjoyed in combinations of which the author of the novel had not dreamed. The metaphor breaks down of course, in that the film pours a sauce of its own over the dish, and adds ingredients not on the table!

Recalling that old saying, almost, that ‘the medium is the message’, I’m persuaded that film is a medium -even in the digital age when we can press the pause button and select individual scenes- designed to be watched in the order presented, and at a single sitting (it’s great similarity with the short story form).

Taking a different analogy, if the film is a helter-skelter ride, the novel is a walk in the park, and the park has many rides and many routes between them that we might enjoy or overlook or dwell on or reflect in.

This adaptation of Dickens takes much that comes early in the novel and uses it later in the story’s arc. Most notable is the switching in time of Copperfield’s Bottling warehouse experience with his school days: designed, perhaps, to give Dev Patel the lion’s share of the screen time. It’s not only scenes. Scraps of dialogue, too good to leave out, and bits of business, too visual to sacrifice, are put into other mouths and hands at different moments in the tale. This is no desecration, only the difference between the helter-skelter ride and the whole park, the plate of dainties and the whole feast.

What this adaptation seems to me to do, intentionally or otherwise, is shift the focus of the tale from Dickens’ narrator, David Copperfield, to Copperfield’s author and creator, Charles Dickens. What the book doesn’t do, but the film most explicitly does, is to make plain that characters who are real in the fictional world of David Copperfield, are fictional in the film world of Dev Patel’s Dickens. Perhaps that is why the film opens (and closes) with whom we take to be Dickens himself, reading from that little, candle-lit booth to one of the packed houses he filled again and again in his years of fame. Charles Dickens does not exist in the novel, but he is present from start to finish in Iannucci’s film adaptation.

Compared to fiction writers, film makers are tyrants. They enforce everything upon us. We have no choice. The exact colour of a coat; the specific cut of a hairstyle; the unique shape of a face; the timbre of an individual voice.

The writer is generous by comparison, liberal. The writer lets you imagine, requests it of you: the shade of red that’s ‘dark as blood’ – perhaps the last blood that you saw run free. The writer allows you to interpret, invites you to: ‘long wavy hair’ that you have seen must be just like that. The writer asks you to decide what the cut of a ‘finely chiselled jaw’ must be; the sound of an ‘incisive voice’. The writer creates a tailor made tale, cut to the precise measurements of the meanings of his or her words, for each of us.

In the film, we are forced to wear the High Street, one size fits all, off the peg version. It is our powers of witness, not of creativity, that the film tests.

Tonight, a week at least, before you will read this, I went to see The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019,Dir.Armando Iannucci).

It’s a glorious adaptation of Dickens’ early (and glorious) novel! Framed, in the film, by scenes of Dickens doing one of his famous public readings. It leans heavily on the characters of both the novel, and the life of its author. It captures something of what we imagine must have been Dickens’ memories of the London he grew up in, as Georgian vulgarity turned to Victorian respectability. It captured something of Dickens the man, as he reflected upon himself through the character of Copperfield.  Dickens’ traumatising ‘Blacking’ factory is transformed into the bottle factory of the film. His failed marriage is there; his love of the nuances of spoken language; his deepening awareness of how people are, and of how he himself was.

But for me, the crowning and uplifting achievement of this film was that it told the story, as it claims to do, in a ‘race blind’ way. I reckon Dickens would have endorsed that too!

When I first heard about this aspect of it I was really doubtful. Surely, I thought, this would swamp the story with our contemporary agendas, fashionable racial stereotypes and the currently proliferating, and progressively tinier identity pigeon-holes we are squeezing ourselves into. But it did not. Rather the opposite in fact.

In widely varying skin types, physiognomies, accents and mannerisms it brought out the oneness of humanity, and told our human story. And there wasn’t a single character, or relationship that I didn’t instinctively believe in. My disbelief was entirely suspended! (Though I did notice – and so did a fellow theatre goer –  that Dora’s voice seemed to take on a different accent in her last scene. I didn’t understand that. Was it intentional? Unintentional? Mistaken? Overlooked? In my imagination? Clever beyond my comprehending?)

The characters in this film were all caricatures to some extent; some more than others, though they were packed with detail. E.M.Forster, I think it was, perhaps in Aspects of the Novel, who pointed out this feature of Dickens’ storytelling. They were flat characters, he said, but agitated vigorously, to give the appearance of life, and there’s truth in that, of Dickens, and of this film; but it’s a strength rather than a weakness. Only the character Agnes is played ‘straight’, without that cartoon quality but with the subtlety of a real person, and that’s clever, and perfect.

The intrusion of the written word is another fine touch, with extracts of overheard speech being collected by the young Copperfield, and labels of printed text filling our screen as we move from segment to segment of the story. There’s a wonderful gag too, where Mr Dick asks Copperfield to form a queue. I saw this film on a Monday late afternoon, with probably less than twenty in the cinema, but I could still sense the ripple through the audience as, with Copperfield, we wondered how one person could do that! But the visual gag is transformed into a linguistic one, perhaps the nearest a film can come to a pun, as Mr Dick produces a sheet of penned Qs for consideration.

There’s an interesting Eisenstein essay, from the early 1940s, called Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today. I found it in Film Form (Harcourt,1977), but it might be elsewhere as well. In it Eisenstein discusses the debt Griffith, the early American film-maker, claimed to owe to Dickens, for such techniques as the montage and the jump-cut. Iannucci’s film celebrates that heritage.

Dev Patel, who plays Copperfield in the film, seemed to make a contentious point in a recent interview regarding the film. He spoke of doing Dickens (and being done by him, as we all were at school) and finding it was ‘grim’. I couldn’t argue with that…. but to extrapolate from that experience the belief that Dickens is a grim read, might be to miss out on something every bit as exciting and enjoyable as this film undoubtedly is.

This is a movie to watch again and again: one to remind us that enjoying stories is not just about finding out what happened, but about experiencing what is happening.  And that is true of all stories, and truest of the best of them.


In Kipling’s Own People  Mike Smithexamines among others, stories, like Mary Postgate (once called the wickedest story ever written), The Gardener and The Debt, (two stories that touch on the mass slaughter of the First World War, but from strikingly different perspectives), The Eye of Allah (a re-arguing of the dichotomy between religion and science), and They (In which a  bereaved father is brought to confront whether or not he has the right to contact his lost child). As well as individual stories, Mike looks at some of the themes that pervade Kipling’s short fiction.

Take Two present a series of brief studies on the differences between adaptations and original stories, both short, and novel length, and looks at the way new agendas make use of stories that were written for apparently quite different purposes. Mike Smith cites good and bad priests in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, how a personal battle between two US Vets becomes a political commentary on the Vietnam war, how the concept of the hero is not so subtly changed in The Lord of the Rings, and how the story of a relationship between two out of time cowboys becomes a traditional Hollywood love story in The Misfits. Plus many more movie adaptations of both novels and short stories by a wide variety of authors..

English of the English, a phrase used by an American commentator about the short stories of A.E.Coppard. Self educated, having left school at the age of nine, Coppard devoted himself almost entirely to the short story form. Here, in a score of essays, Mike Smith looks at individual stories, and commonly occurring themes. Though still relatively well know in America, Coppard has been almost completely forgotten in his own country. In this first substantial critical study to be published in England, Mike begins to redress the balance.


I recently watched the last few episodes of the 1980s Granada TV series, Brideshead Revisiuted. The locations are superb, and so is the acting; the music, sensational, the costumes convincing. I can’t imagine anybody making such a slow and luxurious piece of storytelling in these fractious days. Yet once again, I found myself thinking that I what I liked most about it was the voice overs by Jeremy Irons. I confess I haven’t read the novel from which it was adapted, though it’s on my list, but I suspect that verbal storytelling is lifted closely from the original text. Even if it isn’t, it works as well, and perhaps better than the shown story.

Yet the telling is a performance in its own right. Another reading, in a different voice by another person would have been a different telling.

Voice overs, I’ve read, are thought to ‘kill’ the audio-visual movie, but perhaps it’s more that they overwhelm it, when the telling is done so beautifully. I’m sure I’ve blooged before about this adaptation, and I think I was concentrating on the sea-crossing episode, in which the whole thing is largely a voice over affair, but what this viewing reminded me was that the voice over, though intermittent, is continual throughout the piece, and without it, though the action and location and dialogue would still show us a story, much of the pointing would be absent. The tone of voice in which a story is told acts like the so-called ‘incidental’ music, which of course, rather than being incidental is central to nudging our responses in the intended direction.

I got to thinking in the half hour of contemplation that followed my viewing, about what Waugh’s story was actually trying to communicate. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed to me, that in this adaptation at least, that message was bound up with Marchmain’s death-bed conversion. Even more so than the consequences that follow from it, that making of the cross in extremis seemed to the point of the whole story, and if it had been a short story, I suspect it might have ended there, with Julia’s decision not to marry Ryder being implied and with reaction, both at the time and retrospectively being left to our speculation.

As it was the adaptation ran on, as novels often do, beyond the crisis of the story. Short stories, of course, run on after the crisis of the action, but usually to a scene, our understanding of which is, at least in part, contextualised by that crisis. The crisis or turning point is not in itself what the story is about, so much as is the reaction to, or consequence of it. But here, in the adaptation of Brideshead, for me at any rate, that was not the case. Waugh’s story was being taken to show, I think, the validity of the death bed reversion.

Perhaps the book will leave a different impression….

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 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.

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.