The makings of a classic: Literary adaptations. TV is again schedule-deep in them and there are more staged dramatisations than ever. W Stephen Gilbert reads between the lines

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Peter Greenaway may have called the dramatisation of novels 'the bastard art of illustration', but it is possible to turn a book into an acted piece and do everyone a favour, not least the original novelist.

Hugh Whitemore, a good and diligent writer of original plays and screenplays who has dramatised both contemporary and 'classic' novels, puts it as well as anybody: 'One is not merely translating a story on the page into a story on the screen; one is creating something new - a film or play, based on original material, but with a life and vigour all its own.' (From Ah] Mischief: The Writer and Television, Faber 1982).

Not so long ago, the BBC presented an episode of dramatised novel every week. Mostly they were highlights from the great tradition of the English novel, circa 1720-1920. The unrivalled doyenne of the so-called 'classic serial' (a term she doesn't care for), Betty Willingale worked on a large proportion of them, mostly as script editor. Her chief role was to match the novel to its ideal dramatist and oversee the issue of the marriage.

'I started at a time when there was more original work on the screen,' she says. 'And there was a tendency, if someone wrote a good play, to commission them to write another one. So you could evaluate a writer's talents and sus out what they might be interested in. When I went to Alan Plater for Barchester Chronicles, some people felt it was a risk because he'd never done a dramatisation, but I thought of his plays with that lovely wry sense of humour and a quiet, ironical look on life, and I thought, 'He's the man to do Trollope.' '

For some years, the BBC cried off the classic serial, prompted in no small part by the rocketing expense of period decor and extras in costume. Now dramatisation is back with a vengeance. And not just at the BBC. Along with the inevitable reliance of big musicals on known subject matter (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis et al), novels are creeping back on to legit stages too. Rod Wooden, whose nine-man version of Melville's Moby Dick plays in the RSC's Pit (to 25 October), recently gave a spirited defence of the enterprise on these pages and in so doing articulated the prime objection to the whole phenomenon of dramatisation: 'There were complaints that the play was not the novel.'

This indeed is the nub. If a dramatisation doesn't work on its own terms, everyone will hanker for what might have been. There are certainly moments in Gerry Mulgrew's production when Moby Dick is a piece of theatre rather than a compromised rendering of prose. But the climax, in which a whited-up actor in a diaper looms out of the white silk shroud that envelopes the crew, is, for example, a hapless indication of the chasm between the mental pictures the book generates and the modest particularity of a chamber staging.

Even at an intimate, human scale, staging can fall into elephant traps. The Oxford Stage Company's version of Dickens's Great Expectations, now on tour, is the archetypal anthology of key moments from the book. Such a merciless gallop, however, necessarily leaves no time for subtext. Directing his own script, Mark Brickman has also had a theatre idea which only distracts in practice. The action is haunted by a mute who interpolates gratuitous stage business. 'Mark Brickman has reinvented Dickens,' the leaflet says. Hurrumph.

Best of the current stagings of books is Neil Bartlett's of The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Lyric, Hammersmith (to 15 October). The secret here is that Bartlett takes Oscar Wilde's novel as a starting point for a wide-ranging exploration of the book's themes and of aspects of Wilde's own story. It is not so much a dramatisation of the book as a meditation upon it. Thus the theatre piece is not hamstrung by elements of the novel which do not lend themselves to staging. Bartlett has his own agenda that differs from Wilde's, so he is able to fashion a play that works on its own terms.

But what should we conclude from this fury of dramatising? To a degree in theatre, strikingly so in television, wholly new work is seen as a great risk. Even on Channel 4 and BBC 2, supposed 'new' work tends to be revival, rip-off, spin-off, sequel, import, star vehicle, radio transfer or dramatisation: in short, anything as long as someone can point to some part of the mix and say, 'This has already proved itself.' In such a climate, the return of the classic serial is seen to be a good risk.

Or do I exaggerate? Andrew Davies, as the dramatist of Middlemarch and Anglo- Saxon Attitudes and the up-coming Pride and Prejudice for BBC 1, is the most active toiler now in the field. He thinks so: 'It's just one of those mood things when people think 'Ooh, that was nice, let's have some more like that.' But having got to the top of the list - I think I probably am now - I do get asked first and when it's my favourite books being offered all the time I find it terribly hard to resist.'

The contrast between Davies being 'asked first' and Willingale's matching of dramatist and novel is eloquent enough. Willingale, though she rates Davies highly, thinks the preponderance of books being offered to a small band of favoured writers is 'a counsel of despair. It's like so much of television now, so short-term. I grew up in a BBC ethos considered paternalistic and patronising now, but we did cherish writers.'

I essayed the 'great moments' argument with Andrew Davies. 'I'd be extremely happy,' he said, 'to watch any adaptation that got the great moments right and nothing else. It's not to be sneezed at. Bear in mind that most viewers won't have read the book and if they like the adaptation they might buy the book. For that reason, I won't adapt anything unless I think it has something to say and if I can do it in a way that engages with the lives we're leading now.'

So, when making televersion, where does his allegiance lie, to the original novel or to television? 'Of course, it's to both. But finally it has to be a good programme. To be completely true to the book, you wouldn't do it at all.'

And which would he prefer for Pride and Prejudice, a Bafta or the Jane Austen Society Memorial Medal? 'Well, I've got two Baftas, so perhaps . . .' he laughs. 'Actually, what I'd really like is if Jane Austen wrote me a little letter saying, 'On the whole I like it very much, although I'm extremely annoyed with what you did to page 234 . . .' '

(Photograph omitted)