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I’ve been re-reading The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate. It’s one of my favourite novels and I’ve read it several times, but this time I was reading with a particular purpose in mind. For the next ten weeks I shall be using this novel as one of the texts to draw on for examples of writing techniques for the Creative Writing course I’m leading at Carlisle’s Phil and Lit, and looking for those examples requires a close focus on the text.

What surprised me was that despite having read the book before, there was so much detail that I had not consciously registered, or at least retained in the memory.

Something else, though, of more general interest came out, and that related to the background ideas that Colegate presents us with about what life is and how we might think it should be conducted. Now this novel was written, or at least published, in the early nineteen eighties, but it was set a lifetime earlier, in 1913. My adoptive parents were born in 1907 and 1908. I grew up in the 1950s.

There’s a quotation from about two hundred years ago – some attribute it to Sydney Smith – about what hasn’t been ‘reasoned in’, being difficult to ‘reason out’. Brought up to date, it means what we’re taught before we are old enough to rationalise its wisdom, is so taken for granted as to be virtually hard wired into us. And how old do we have to be before we even recognise, or learn about that process, and see that we have been exposed to it? My guess is that the learning, the recognition, comes later than the age at which we visit it on our own children.

As a counter-current to that, there was – but not necessarily only – a nice little change between the novel’s text, and the ‘same’ scene as recreated in the film version (which followed soon after publication). That involved a Derbyshire ‘peasant’ expressing his distrust of Welshmen. In the film, this had been expanded to include Jews. What agenda, I wonder, was being addressed by the addition, for it made no significant difference to the story, only to our perceptions of that working class individual. Stories, whenever they are set, whenever they are told, carry the stamp of the time of the telling, however historically accurate they might try to be.

But still it occurs to me that the ideas I’ll will have had not reasoned into me, are likely to have been those that were not reasoned into my parents by the generation  before. My maternal grandmother was born in 1876 (and her husband, I think, a few years earlier). She told me once of watching the soldiers go off by train to war. I presumed she meant the Staffordshire Regiment, and the First World War. She said she had been a young girl at the time though, and would have been in her thirties by then. She recalled the sight in the early nineteen sixties. The surprise was, that she remembered them wearing red uniforms. This must have been the early Boer War, or even one of the colonial slaughterfests of the late nineteenth century, when we had ‘the maxim gun, and they had not!’ Thus the slow pace of change, generation to generation. Thus the surprising similarities of thought, and assumption, in the minds of my parents, and the characters of a novel set in 1913.

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img_8098 img_8099There are several – some might say many – pairings of books and their film adaptations on my shelves. One pair that gets taken down and watched and read more often than most is Isabel Colegate’s novel The Shooting Party and Geoff Reeve’s film of the same name. I’ve written about this pair before as an example of the ‘faithful’ adaptation, but that fidelity doesn’t mean it is a slavish copy, a filmic re-enactment of the scenes readers might be expected to imagine (as has been said of the film version of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, for example).

Recently I watched and read, the Colegate/Reeve pairing with a closer eye than usual, looking, to begin with, for what I thought of as filmic equivalents to the told story’s content. Perhaps because Reeve has captured the tone and characters of the film so well and in many cases has replicated word for word the dialogue of the told story, I was surprised to recognise just how many changes I had not been conscious of when the watching and reading were weeks and perhaps months apart – or when the attention to detail was overwhelmed by the enjoyment of absorption in the story, told and shown!

In fact, even where those dialogues had been lifted ‘faithfully,’ they had often been placed differently in the film to where they lay in the original, both  in time, and place, and on several occasions had been put into the mouths of different characters. Many had been turned from internal monologues, to comments made in public.

Speaking on the DVD ‘specials’, Rupert Fraser, who played Lionel, remarks that there is only one scene in the film that is not in the book – the fancy dress scene that takes place on the stairwell at Knebworth (which took the role of Nettleby). I have said as much – and written it! But it is not, in fact, the case. There is at least one other – where Lionel and Olivia, in the film alone, go riding and have a faithfully reported conversation from the book – but not at the same point in the story nor in the same location. Other scenes have their conversational and incidental content switched around, the dinner party, in the film, for example, allowing words that are only thought to be exchanged aloud and thus made available to the watcher as they were to the reader.

The point I want to make is not so much about the particular novel  and film, but about the fluidity of of stories – how conversations can be manipulated, moved from place to place, and time to time, and mouth to mouth, without obviously changing their significance in the story, and, at first glance, or indeed any ‘glance’, without changing our perception of the characters that speak them.

Yet on a close examination it might be that a story is changed, subtly, and that its characters will be different, and not so subtly? One case I would give is where, in both versions, Sir Randolph, the key reader-proxy and opinion touchstone of the story, talks to Aline, the mistress of Charles Farquhar (in the book), and of Sir Reuben Hergesheimer (in the film), and accuses her of ‘wickedness’ in her speculations about the ‘affair’ between Olivia and Lionel. In the former version this is quite a long conversation, but in the latter is equally brief. More sharply potent perhaps, is where, in the film, Sir Randolph confesses to Hergesheimer that copying the Sandringham shoots almost bankrupted the estate. In the book, though the rest of the conversation does take place, Sir Randolph only recalls this to memory. He does not share it with his house guest. The shift in our perception of Sir Randolph may be slight, but is in a definite direction: In the first case what he is shown taking an interest in seems to me to be narrower and more focused in the film, broader in the novel. In the second, the told Sir Randolph’s reticence seems more in keeping with his character than the film’s more expansive version – yet, without that remark the audience of the shown version could not know that particular detail.

This isn’t offered as a criticism, only as an observation, and one that might support the contention that the business of shown, rather than told stories is one of sharper focus – streamlined is a word I have heard used by film-makers in relation to the adaptation process. With a novel our imaginations, sparked by what we are told, might run more freely, than with a film, where we must observe what is put before us.

Of course, whether or not considering this helps, when it comes to writing a story, might be a moot point. Another story set in the past but not made into a film (yet) is BHD’s A Penny Spitfire,  available here (but only for a couple of months more).

APennySpitfire-frontcover

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