Phil: When not being a top author, I can sometimes be found working the front of house at the Royal Spa Centre. My role involves wearing a slightly uncomfortable radio earpiece, making sure everyone can get in an out easily, pointing people in the direction of the toilets and doing what I can to ensure they have a pleasant time. While I’m keeping an eye on the audience during a show, I get to see parts of some very interesting performances. Obviously it’s not as good as being a proper audience member – no seat, you miss the beginning and end of the performance to do the doors and you are supposed to look at the crowds and not the stage – but you can’t complain. OK, seeing the pantomime 15 times over Christmas (Oh yes I did) soon takes the shine off live theatre but most of our events are one offs.
Last night we hosted a talk by Andrew Davies. For those who are mystified, he is one of the adaptors of novels to TV and film. UK readers will doubtless be aware of his work on the Austen classic Pride and Prejudice, especially (one for the ladies) the wet shirt scene containing Colin Firth. This was great news for me as I could hopefully pick up a few tips and get paid at the same time.
As it turned out, the talk was mostly film clips and anecdotes, which is exactly what the audience wanted. You can’t argue, a technical treatise on writing can’t compete with Kiera Knightly in Doctor Zhivago for most normal people. Everyone in the sell-out audience had a good time anyway. Andrew is approachable and was very happy to chat. One of the advantages of the venue is that it’s intimate enough you get to feel you have met “the talent” rather than just seen them from a distance looking about 6 inches high.
What interested me was how he approaches turning a book into drama. Sometimes it just involves re-typing what it is on the page. Every so often though, the author throws what I believe is called a “curve ball”. In Pride and Prejudice, the first half of the book is “easy”. Then Austen drops in an important letter from Darcy to Elizabeth. This is fine in a book, we just get to read the letter which explains how Wickham and Darcy were close and then how the former wronged the later terribly including trying to seduce his 15-year-old sister (As an aside, girls in classic novels often seem to be remarkably young when they are married off, a problem for today’s audience and it makes finding an actress who looks the part yet is able to carry the role a challenge) a pivotal point in the narrative, but on telly ? Watching some bloke working with a quill ? Something more visual was required.
At this point the adaptor has to fall back on understanding the book. And then make it all up so the story continues even if it’s not entirely faithful to the printed page. Quite how faithful the adaptor is to the page seems to vary depending on the quality of the source material. Famously Davies fell out with the writer of House of Cards over changes made to the book. Mind, you have to avoid being too precious about it as with this series, at the end of the book the main character dies. By altering this it left the option of a couple of lucrative sequels. I suspect the author might not have been too chuffed but his accountant will have told him to stop moaning !
When writing Seeds of Change I’ll admit to thinking in pictures. There are certain sections where I image it looking like the BBC adaption of Blott on the Landscape. OK so it’s a book so you have to write the words down but then when I read I don’t really see the type on the page, in my head I can see the character talking and acting. I think most people do this which is why they get so annoyed when a book is adapted for TV or film because the characters don’t look like the ones in their head.
I didn’t offer Andrew Davies first refusal on the book adaption – I suspect he gets loads of people banging on about their books to him and anyway, it would be beneath my professional dignity (see also: asking for autographs). However if he promises not to bugger around too much with the bits I wrote, he is in with a shout…