Monday 22 February 2021

Guest feature by Mike Harris: ADAPT OR DIE?

'Adaptations bring new readers to old stories; they translate, refresh, and transform.'

Mike Harris
is a script writer and director. He has written a ridiculously large number of scripts for radio, touring theatres, community groups, schools, youth theatres, reps and a microscopic amount of TV drama. He also taught one day a week on the MA in script writing at Sheffield Hallam University for a very long time until Metrically Mad Management took over the asylum and he resigned. Recently he has mainly written for BBC Radio 4. 

‘…Mike Harris’s adaptation (actually, more of a masterclass in filleting and repurposing) took Trollope’s major characters and plot lines, shook them about, jettisoned everything dispensable, and grippingly refashioned them for the 21st century,’ said the nice man at the Daily Telegraph. But not everyone is happy when you mammock novels. This piece is about why that is, why they have a point, and why it’s still worth doing.

Authors rarely like finished works being changed, but if they have sold the rights, they can’t object legally, unless the change is something the contract rules out, or there isn’t a contract. I once adapted a great short story by a famous German author. The transmission date was looming when my producer suddenly realised that the contract hadn’t been signed, and it still hadn’t when I rang the author in Berlin for comments on the final draft. He was not generally unhappy but insisted that I remove a gun I had placed in the hand of his vengeful husband. I thought the weapon helpfully upped the dramatic ante. Normally I would have at least made that case but without a signed contract he could have stopped the production on a whim. So, I complied instantly. Moral? If you’re adapting novels make sure the contract’s been signed and, if you’re the novelist, read the small print, or barbarians like me get away with putting guns in the hands of your subtle, nuanced, babies.

It’s not only authors who can object to adaptations. Faithful readers get attached to beloved characters and favourite story lines, and you can’t pay them off. When cornered in a lift by a genuinely outraged Jane-ite, or furious Fielding fan, it’s no use saying, ‘”adaptation” doesn’t mean “copy”’. Far better to point out that an unduly faithful rendering from one medium to another invariably betrays the original by making it worse. Long ago, I turned my wife Jane Rogers' novel Mr Wroe’s Virgins into a two-hour, BBC Radio 3 drama. For reasons lost to memory, but possibly in fear of domestic retribution, I did little more than cut and paste, and the result was ponderous in ways the novel isn’t, but far more faithful than the TV mini-series that my wife had scripted, and changed substantially under pressure from her director and producer, and which, as a result, was not the least bit ponderous. And even my ‘faithful’ version had to be cut to ribbons to fit the time slot.

Cuts are unavoidable. The average 250-300 page novel, still less a War and Peace, takes many hours to read and simply won’t fit-whole into a 60-minute single-drama, which is now the longest slot available on Radio 4 for most adaptations. It won’t fit whole into a 2-hour Radio 3 ‘special’ either, nor into a 6 x 60 minute Sunday serial. And even if you managed to sell it as a five-season NETFLIX series, and could therefore in theory ‘fit it all in,’ the chances are it still wouldn’t work as well, if all you did was copy faithfully the way it was executed in its original medium. For example, if you write an adaptation with the same ratio of narration to dialogue as the average novel, you don’t get good drama, you get a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.

However, if Trollope Society goons come calling with baseball bats because you and another writer (Sharon Oakes) have just turned each of The Great Man’s 600-page Palliser novels into a one-hour radio play and, in the process, removed major characters and cut beloved plot lines, they are not likely to be pacified if you say ‘”adaptation” doesn’t mean “copy”’. You might try explaining that times change.

Disestablishing the church of England may have hit the Victorian reader’s G-Spot but it’s wide of the mark for 21st century audiences. So, I changed it, in Phineas Finn, to the ‘Irish Land issue.’ I was thereby remaining authentic to 19th century history, because Ireland was an issue then as much as now but I was also trying to preserve the political impact. A faithful copying of the original issue would simply not have preserved that for modern listeners.

It isn’t as if Trollope himself was faithful when he was ‘adapting’ 19th century history. He sets the series in the 1860’s and 70’s, which was ‘now’ for him, at the time, but he places those decades in a parallel universe with made-up politicians, and history that never happened.

Ergo, being ‘authentic’ sometimes requires you to be inauthentic.

When fans complain that your historical characters ‘talk too modern,’ point out that what passed for a zippy contemporary novelistic exchange in Walter Scott’s day risks sounding now like an interminable drone. And add that Scott himself didn’t copy how people spoke at the time. He wrote in a literary convention of contemporary dialogue. Why replicate his inauthenticity in the interests of ‘authenticity’? My own rule for historical dialogue is much the same as for the contemporary kind: ‘keep it short and conflicted’ but, for historical pieces, also avoid obvious anachronisms and throw in the odd felicitous reference or phrase to locate the period. But for heaven’s sake if you’re adapting Ivanhoe  don’t do ‘Forsooth-my Lord’ Medieval-Speak. Why? Because they didn’t speak English in the 12th century, let alone like a gothic revival knight in a poor copy of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. The same goes for most other periods of history. RP, for example, is an a-historical convention deployed ubiquitously in most period drama, but it didn’t exist as a national marker of class superiority until the mid to late 19th century. Before that, most posh people still spoke with regional accents. Mr Darcy probably had a distinct burr.

It’s not only conventions and tropes that change. The original audiences for Austen, Dickens, Eliot and Trollope didn’t have a thousand channels of radio and TV to distract them, not to mention Spotify, so their attention spans were longer, and they were more tolerant of prolixity. In the mid-19th century, commercial circulation libraries like Mudies were the Netflix of their day. They utilised the new railway technology to ‘stream’ stories into middle class homes all over the country. Families were desperate for something to get them through all those long, dark nights, the middle class was expanding, and literacy was on the increase, so the commercial lending libraries could buy from publishers in bulk. This gave them enormous power. So, if the libraries wanted lengthy three-volume novels for their customers to binge-read, the publishers commissioned them. Authorial brevity was therefore dis-incentivised. Basically, writers were paid to go on.

In truth we all like to go-on. It’s just that the adapter on radio or TV can’t, not if we want our audiences to stay tuned. So, it’s a mercy that most 19th century novels are easy to cut savagely (Thanks Mr Mudie!). Trollope, for example, tends to repeat himself. More-or-less the same characters appear and re-appear in The Pallisers, equipped with different names and only marginally different characteristics. He also recycles plot lines. Academics, whose job is to justify finished texts, will argue that Trollope is thereby exploring subtle thematic nuance. I, on the other hand, would draw your attention to his conditions of production. Trollope worked full-time at his post office management job, writing astonishingly fast: 1000 words every day before breakfast, and to tight deadlines because the novels were being serialised in St Paul’s Magazine. I think it more likely therefore that he repeated himself because he had little or no time to revise and simply didn’t have the head space to be consistently original.

So, the adapter makes hay. You cut, and cut, and cut. You cull plot lines and merge ‘samey’ characters. Radio loves narration, but in my view it only works if the narrator is actively in the story.

So, if you’re me, you choose Trollope’s most dynamic character, the one most liable to appeal to modern sensibilities and concerns, Palliser’s young wife Cora, and substitute her voice for Trollope’s omniscient third person one. She is telling her story from beyond the grave, watching her younger self make the mistakes younger selves always do, and sometimes hopelessly trying to intervene.

If, after you’ve said all that, the lads and lasses with baseball bats are still wanting reasons why, tell them it’s because it’s just more interesting. And run.

Ethical issues can arise if you stick too closely to the original, whether it’s a classic or contemporary. There’s a rape scene in Huxley’s Antic Hay and it’s distastefully comic. The implication is that the victim, an unpleasant female character, deserves it. I wasn’t prepared to copy this, and I doubt that a contemporary audience would have accepted it if I had. The BBC ‘Compliance’ department certainly wouldn’t and, on this rare occasion, they would have been right. So, I switched victims and removed the comedy. I transplanted into the scene a character we could sympathise with, my producer suggested making our hero punch the rapist in the face when he boasted about it, and we made our heroine point out bitterly that the police would do nothing if they reported it. None of that is in the original.

Non-textual ethical issues are also relevant. Most professional actors are female. Most parts in plays are still for men, even now, especially in adaptations of novels written by men in times when women simply weren’t allowed to do as much stuff. I now try to equalise the number of male and female parts both in my own plays and in adaptations, not because I want to ‘cancel’ history, which I care about, but to be fairer, now. The story and the history is still there, you just tell it in different ways. And not just in the classics. Similar issues arise with colour and ethnicity.

I recently adapted a strange, and wonderful, contemporary novel by André Alexis, called Fifteen Dogs. It had, for no obvious reason, a lot more male than female canines in it, and two, male, Greek Gods telling the story while drinking in a downtown Toronto Bar (don’t ask, I haven’t got the space). I equalised the male/ female dog-ratio and made one of the Gods female. This not only made fairer casting possible, it also helped me solve an aesthetic problem. The original frame tale is very ‘talky’. It’s interesting talk but not much happens, and drama, as Aristotle points out, is first and foremost about events. So, by turning Apollo into Aphrodite, I could stage an affair and have Aphrodite’s jealous husband, Hephaestus (also not in the book) go looking for her down on earth.

Another good reason for radical adaptation is that you can try to improve on the original when, frankly, it wasn’t the author’s best work. Antic Hay for example is not a great novel. Taken as a whole, it’s not even a good one, but I got it commissioned because Radio 4 was doing a series called Electric Decade about the 1920s, and there is some great stuff in it. So, I cut the under-par portions and restructured it using the stuff that was genuinely witty and insightful. This was fun and satisfying for me. Which are two other reasons for going radical.

All these reasons for change are, of course, in constant tension with the desire to stay as true to the original as possible, and to do it justice in a different medium. Adaptations bring new readers to old stories, they translate, refresh, and transform the canon, making it live in very different times and places.

The bottom line is: species that don’t adapt die. Shakespeare has been adapted in every conceivable way, for four hundred years. Dryden was rewriting Shakespeare in the 17th century and we have never stopped. All this shape-shifting is the reason why his increasingly alien language has been no obstacle to survival. For me, he has been best served and preserved by radical cinematic adaptations like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, which even cut the thematically central ‘Fable of the Belly’. In contrast, the executors of Samuel Beckett’s estate, by preventing companies from changing a comma of what that great, dark comedian wrote are, ultimately, condemning him to an academic graveyard. Adapt or die. …

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