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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

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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.

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).

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That short film Tape  of Freya’s is making its way in the world ….and now a nominee…at Thursday night’s screening too!! http://opencitylondon.com/films/docheads-best-uk-short-award-0
IMG_7421 Well done, chuck!

That daughter of mine has got her film Tape into another film festival:BHDandME shorn

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI watched Director Joseph Strick’s 1980s adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses a little while ago. It has been shown on TV a couple of times, and I saw it a couple of decades back, recording it to watch again later.

It says something about how underwhelmed I was at that first watching that I never got around to viewing the video-ed version, and so it was dvd that I ended up with. The second viewing though turned out to be rather a surprise. Though few images from the film had imprinted themselves on my mind, almost the whole of it seemed familiar when I watched again. I’ve read the book several times, which might have helped. On the dvd cover the blurb boasts – I think that’s the appropriate word – that every word is taken from the book and in one of those light-bulb moments, almost everything that I liked and disliked about the adaptation was illuminated.

Strick has been faithful to the book, valiantly so, though he has transposed the Dublin of Joyce’s 1904 to a nineteen-postwar sort of Dublin. I wasn’t sure if it was sixties, seventies, or eighties in intent. Perhaps scrutiny of the road vehicles, if you are into that sort of thing, would clarify. It was a present that he must have tried to strip of all its contemporary resonances.

The attempt leads to some curious losses in relation to Joyce’s story. Gerty MacDowell’s underwear, for example – not a bad place to begin – is less spectacular under its short shift dress than the Edwardian glories that Joyce no doubt had in mind! And when Bloom, later, stops to get an eyeful in that shop window there’s not much to mutely crave to adore on display.

The politics of the time are changed too. The soldiers that knock Stephen to the ground on the way home from the brothel are no longer the soldiers of the British Empire. Stephen, in the book, is beaten for insulting ‘my fucking king’, which neither we nor the Irish still had, not for insulting his girl – though that lady still gets excited that they are fighting for her! Earlier in the story, Mr Daisy’s significance too has been altered by the decades of history unraveled between novel and film.

The citizen is still the citizen, but the owld dog has become a German Shepherd, which is not at all the same as the Sykesian bruiser in the novel. And Bloom carried off in the back seat of a sports car, though still comic, is not the same as being carried off by horse carriage. Poor Paddy Dignam’s funeral is still horse-drawn though, which adds a curiously nostalgic touch to it, though I can remember, I think, post-war horse drawn hearses in my English hometown.

Even the Martello Tower, imagined, and shown, a piece of actual architecture that pre-dates the novel by a century, seems out of place when inhabited by mid twentieth century characters, and Haines is more of an upper-class twit than a ponderous Anglo-Saxon in a liberated Ireland.

In fact, the modernisation of the novel works directly against the spirit of Joyce’s attempt to re-create in words a Dublin of 1904 that could be re-imagined, re-constructed even, if the original were to vanish… which of course it has. There are still Edwardian pubs around of course, with their dark wood panelling and engraved glass, but now, and when the film was made, we cannot help perceive them as anything but ‘heritage’. For Joyce they were contemporary. When he looks into Davy Byrne’s, Leopold Bloom does not go into an old fashioned pub in the novel, but he does in the film.

Back I go again to my old hobby horse of showing and telling: Joyce has told us about his Dublin, and we can picture it…. Strick has shown us a later one, which, because he has done so, we do not need to.

And on I come to my main point: The faithful adaptation – and it is faithful, for all its transposing the time of the place – shows us one version of what the original telling might have led us to imagine. That’s what adaptations do. They save us the trouble, and the challenge, and ultimately the joy, and the discovery (the self-discovery), that the telling demands of us.

There is an interesting change at the end too, where, as in the John Huston adaptation of The Dead, there can be no better way of finishing the story than by using the words in which Joyce finished it. On Howth Head, among the Rhododendrons, with the warm mush of the seed-cake in his mouth, Bloom is asked to ask, once again…..and Molly answers ‘yes’. The scene is word perfect, and well imagined – though my Molly Bloom was always more Rubenesque – but in fact it doesn’t end as the book does.

It’s well attested that Molly Bloom’s monologue was a late addition to the novel, and in purely dramatic terms the story finds a definite closure when Bloom sees Stephen safely off into the night, and re-enters his Abode of Bliss, Plumtree’s Potted Meat notwithstanding (why is it one can never write about Ulysses without pumping it up with quotes, puns and literary how-d’yee dos!), and this is true to some extent in both the novel and the film. But, whereas the novel ends entirely at Molly’s final yes, the film does not. There is a moment of reflection, during which the camera runs on, and we see her face: what is she contemplating, reflecting upon, as we watch? In the book there is no such moment. It is we who must contemplate and reflect, upon what we have been told. In the film we cannot help but watch what we are shown, and it is upon that that we must reflect. Strick, almost certainly without meaning to, has moved the ending of the book on into an untold future, albeit a momentary one; and in doing so he has moved us on, taking our focus away from Joyce’s told ‘yes’, and placing it on his shown  moment.

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Calling Names:  What’s the dog’s name? You might be asked; and you might answer, I have no idea, but we call it Mutt.

Names are usually almost meaningless, but not quite. Sometimes they imply meanings by echoing other words. Sometimes they conflate meanings by the co-incidental marriage of their different elements. Sometimes they sound like actual words, but ones that we haven’t heard before. Sometimes they seem to be distorted versions of words that we know. Sometimes they are perfectly simple words from languages that we have forgotten, or not yet encountered.

Names are hygrospic of meaning. They draw it to themselves. Even randomly chosen names, plucked blindfolded from a telephone directory or voting register, seem to take on the the qualities of the characters to whom they are attached, or vice-versa. I’m writing about writing of course, and about the fictional characters we create, and how we identify them; but it all seems to be true of real life too!

A wartime friend of my father’s was known to his comrades as Blackie, to his first wife as Vin, and to his second as Mel. His passport would have recorded him as a Melvin. He was the inspiration for Derek Fitton, the protagonist in my novel, A Penny Spitfire. Derek is known variously, as Dec, and Dirk. These changes mark out the trajectories of real, and of fictional lives, as BHD and Me well know.

I was adopted into a Strickland family, on my mother’s side. They could trace their roots from the midlands, where I was born and grew up, back to the north of England, in what is now Cumbria. Stricklands were, and I believe still are, rare in the midlands, but in Cumbria they were a landed family ‘of Sizergh’. A Hornihand-Strickland was one of the seven men of Moidart, who welcomed Charles Stuart in his ill-fated 1745 to seize the crown of the Union. Strickland is a corruption of Stirkelond, a patronym of Dutch origin, brought into Scotland in, I believe, the fifteen hundreds, where it left the word ‘stirk’. Herd (and herded) in the border country, it was not a word in currency in the midlands where I grew up. Stirk isn’t in my edition of the OED, but went on to be steer, I shouldn’t wonder, when the Scots took cattle ranching across to the USA. Dogies and Spreidhs, and other such Scottish cattle culture words can be found in Rob Gibson’s Plaids and Bandanas, one of a whole genre of books about the Highlanders, in which some interesting origins of English words (also not in my OED) can be found.

Another name from my childhood was Hole, a surname deed-poll-changed by its owner to De Laney, which implies a story all on its own. If names work by suggestion, subtley influencing the reader’s reaction to characters, and to stories, they must also operate on the subconscious of the writer. They evoke associations we are not conscioulsy aware of. I recently wrote a story with a protagonist called Wynwright. I was well aware that the name was a slightly skewed version of the more common ‘Wainright’, and that it held elements that sounded like ‘win’ and ‘right’, but I had entirely overlooked the famous writer of mountain guides. Yet, the story begins with my character putting on his walking boots! I often recall that opening line of Moby Dick: Call me Ishmael, but I can’t remember any other mention of the name throughout that long novel. Stories are often named after their heroes, or villains, and have been since antiquity, for the Greeks gave us the word for the practice: eponymous.

Surprisingly perhaps, the absence of names can be as potent as their presence. Without names we have to find some other way of identifying our characters: labels, in effect. My Wynwright interacts with a character described as ‘the man’, or ‘the stranger’. In another story I have ‘the peanut headed man’. In this story the four central characters exchange names – though the reader does not hear them all, and the protagonist, who is named, resents the cultural imperialism of being subjected to the practice. In Lord of the Rings, the rather formal Peregrine (from peregrination, a circular journey, there and back again) and Meriadoc, are reduced to Pippin (a type of apple), and Merry (a state of mind valued more for its innocence that its intelligence). In a section I couldn’t track down to cite, I seem to recall, perhaps Gandalf, saying how he would hate to see the hobbitry subject to tyranny – but the adjectives he usesto describe that hobbitry are astonishingly patronising.

I remember a Rhodesian who had fled his homeland, losing almost all his possessions, in the late nineteen seventies. Telling me of his ‘bleks’, he asserted that they were ‘like children’. So they may have been, but that ought not to have been so, and if they were, must surely have been the consequence of the regimes under which they were living, and had lived. In the movies too, labels tell us as much about the labeller as about the labellee: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly springs to mind. Names are a seque away from masks and cloaks, uniforms and badges, whether or not you are a caped crusader. Black hats, and white hats, verbal or visual, explicit or implicit, give off the atmosphere of character, and of story in just the same way as the events that have taken place in a house are said to give off theirs. They manipulate the way we enter, and the carefree or cautious way we move through it.