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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.

I went to Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake recently, and saw Dear Uncle, an Alan Aykbourn adaptation (?) of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. I’m not familiar with the Russian play, so had little idea of how much was the samovar and how much the teapot, but there was the occasional whiff of a Slavic Soul, and the brooding, sultry rise of a storm that I could imagine might hover over the Steppes. I flew across Russia (not a bombing run – but a commercial flight) from the UK to Moscow, and then, twenty four hours later, from Moscow to Beijing. The return journey done on a clear, January morning, with the vast expanses of the then Soviet Union, sans roads mostly, but with the occasional factory chimney, and once a bridge throwing long shadows in the direction of the North Pole. It was like flying over an untidily thrown brown quilt, and we flew for hours, until we hit a wall of cloud that crossed our route and stretched as far as I could see towards the Himalayas, and saw no more.

Russia was cold in January; minus around twenty; and the air ripped the back of your throat at each breath. Cars were white humps along the roadsides in the city centre. Ice flowed on the river seen from Lenin Heights. China, at around minus 6 was dry, a pale, watery sun and a dusty air making the silhouettes of false horizons as hazy as the pen and ink wash lines of Chiang Ye’s Silent Traveller landscapes. This was years before the Chinese Government frightened its monkeys, and there were only a few military jeeps, our tourists coaches, and the odd commercial truck nosing through a sea of bicycles – some of them three wheelers, with flat-bed backs to which the white goods and televisions of modernisation had been tied.

Stories come out of place and time. Come here, or go there a few years, or perhaps even minutes earlier, or later, and the stories the place is making will change. Come at that precise moment to here, or there, and the few hundred miles, or mere turning of a corner, will make the story of that minute quite different.

I couldn’t work out where the Chekhov/Aykbourn story came from, nor when it belonged, despite the excellent costumes and cleverly managed stage setting. Theatre by the Lake always impresses me with its stagecraft. Sprinkling the script with Lake District names and generic aye oop lad, sithees, didn’t cut the mustard. The English country house still carried the reek of the dacha, and the ‘estates’ that were managed implied the serf rather than a Cumbrian farming folk. Motors off sounded as rough as the wind up gramophone record near the end of the piece, but I was never convinced where I was, or when, nor that I might be somewhere and when entirely imaginary.

            The cast included many I recognised from The Ladykillers, which I saw a few weeks ago, and they were as good. Valiant would be the word I’d chose. But every line they uttered, and some were sparkling and powerful, seemed to come straight from the mouth of a playwright, not from what the characters they represented might have said at that particular moment, in that particular place. As with the location, what these characters seemed to be talking about was what interested Chekhov, or Aykbourn, but not themselves. I just couldn’t believe in them between their speeches (though as they spoke, each statement was given with brio, and conviction). It was the gaps between that didn’t work, the hidden links that would make this character say that to this other one, and say it in that way, at that moment. My unwilling disbelief was never strung up from the lighting rig, as it (almost) always has been before at TBTL. I found myself weighing it up throughout the performance, rather than being immersed in it, and carried along.

I need to read the Chekhov now, as indeed a man on the row in front of me had done, he said, the night before. It’ll need to be good in the second half, he apparently told a friend of mine at the interval, or it’ll be a miserable failure. What did he say at the end, I asked when I saw her again. ‘Mm’, she told me.

Hey! I still loved it, and writers can only take us part of the way….the rest is up to us.

I toyed with the idea of taking the dvd of The Beggar’s Opera to my mother-in-law’s last weekend. Starring Laurence Olivier it was Peter Brook’s directorial debut (he went on to direct the 1963 Lord of the Flies), and was released in 1953.

Subtitled A Highwayman’s Tale, it was a contemporary piece when first written and published by John Gay in the late 1720s.

In the end I decided not to take it. When would we get the time to watch it, I asked myself? What I didn’t ask was, would I have the time to read the playscript? which I found in a 1923 facsimile edition on my mother-in-law’s book shelves. Well I did, as it happens.

Bound with the Opera was a sequel, Polly, of which I hadn’t heard tell, and I read that too! Polly, the eponymous heroine of the slightly later play, was the unhappy wife of Macheath, the Highwayman of the first. In this sequel she is seen having fled (as advised somewhere in the earlier play) to the West Indies to make a new life for herself. MacHeath is there too, disguised as the ‘black pyrate’, Murano. In a convoluted plot he and his pirate band end up fighting an alliance of colonists and Indians for control of, well, almost everywhere in the Caribbean it seems!

Polly has been sold into sexual slavery to a colonial landlord, but his wife has allowed her to escape, disguised as a man. She is on the trail of MacHeath, with whom she is still in love, a love that outlasts all she, and we, get to know of him, right up to his capture and execution, at which point she begins to favour the Indian ‘Prince’ on whose side she had been fighting.

Throughout the story, Polly has been an example of innocence, but not stupidity. She has displayed all the qualities of honesty and virtue that the characters in The Beggar’s Opera  have despised and perverted. In this second play she finds an echo of her qualities, not in the colonialists, nor in the pirates, but in the rather stereotyped ‘noble savages’. It’s a worthy play; but read as a much more earnest piece, as if the light, comic-satirical tone of the first had worn thin to its author. It throws up a couple of sequences that caught my attention in particular.

The first of these is a sort of prologue, in which the writer – cast as ‘the poet’ – discusses the wisdom, and possible folly, of writing the sequel in the first place, with one of ‘the players’. Surprisingly modern ideas are examined, or perhaps not so surprising on reflection, about whether it is right to venture a sequel that might not in itself be worthy, but which will succeed on the back of the earlier piece.

The second comes near to the end when MacHeath, not yet revealed in his true identity, is captured and questioned by the Indian chief, before, unrepentant, he is sent to his death. This, I thought, had more than a whiff of modern life about it…. So I share the relevant lines of the longer scene:

CHIEF: Would your European  laws have suffer’d crimes like these to have gone unpunish’d?

MACHEATH: Were all I am worth safely landed, I have wherewithal to make almost any crime sit easy upon me.


CHIEF: Would not your honest industry have been sufficient to have supported you?

MACHEATH:  Honest industry! I have heard talk of it indeed among common people, but all great genius’s are above it (apostrophe, his, not mine!).

CHIEF: Have you no respect for virtue?

MACHEATH: As a good phrase, Sir. But the practicers of it are so insignificant and poor, that they are seldom found in the best company.

CHIEF: Is not wisdom esteem’d among you?

MACHEATH: Yes, sir, but only as a step to riches and power; a step that raise ourselves, and trips up our neighbours.

CHIEF: Honour and honesty, are not these distinguish’d?

MACHEATH: As incapacities and follies. How ignorant are these Indians! But indeed I think honour is of some use; it serves to swear upon.

CHIEF: Have you no consciousness? Have you no shame?

MACHEATH: Of being poor.

CHIEF: How can society subsist with avarice!  Ye are but the forms of men. Beasts would thrust you out of their herd upon that account, and man should cast you out for your brutal dispositions.

MACHEATH:  Alexander the Great was more successful. That’s all.

Of Mice and Men: the Short Fiction of John Steinbeck

Here’s Me on the TSS site, writing about Steinbeck’s short story/play Of Mice and Men

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:


Well, here it is, officially… the short play, Telling by Me and Marilyn Messenger was one of 3 winning plays and will be performed at the Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, on October 20th.  Did you spot the link? It’s there, and here, if you see what I mean….Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

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.

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.


A week last Thursday night….I went to see  As You Like It at Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake. It’s the first Shakespeare play I ever saw on stage, at Birmingham Rep, with, seemingly, half the cast of Crossroads in the company. Good old Burton Boys Grammar School (I’m being ironic, you should know), had gone to pains to teach us that when we call a Shakespeare play ‘comic’, we don’t mean it’s funny. Birmingham Rep blew that piece of disinformation right out of the water, and won me over to Shakespeare despite everything that the Education system threw at him.

It must be twenty years since I’d seen the play, and last night I was amazed at how much of it – almost every line – came back to me, though I couldn’t have written down more than a few of them without that prompting. It’s remained my favourite play, though I can see it’s not the slickest (and yes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream pushes a hard second).

The TBTL production was as good as I had come to expect, and celebrated the essential romanticism of the play. Jessica Hayles made a fabulous Rosalind – all Rosalinds should be fabulous. I can remember Eileen Atkins in her Ganymede jeans, and still have the theatre programme somewhere! But Layo-Christina Akinlude as Celia/Aliena gave a master-class in how to play the part that is on stage a lot of the time, but has few lines and very little action. With nods, head-shakes, grins, eye-rolls and other micro-movements she mirrored, re-inforced and nudged our responses to what the other characters were saying and doing. It’s a fine line sort of part to walk between too much and not enough, and she was absolutely spot on.

One slight change to Shakespeare’s script puzzled me. An exchange of words, very near to the end, one that you wouldn’t notice was missing unless you were expecting to hear it, had been excised; like a sprig of bitter herb left out of a gourmet dish.

But Bravo! Theatre ByThe Lake, cast and crew.