The lion, the witch and the curtain call

'The Hobbit' and 'The Secret Garden' have been adapted for the stage. Jenny Gilbert says you mess with kids' classics at your peril
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The Independent Culture

'The hiss was close behind him ... 'What has it got in its pocketses?' Bilbo turned now and saw Gollum's eyes like small green lamps coming up the slope."

'The hiss was close behind him ... 'What has it got in its pocketses?' Bilbo turned now and saw Gollum's eyes like small green lamps coming up the slope."

These lines have been quietly terrifying young readers since The Hobbit was first published in 1937. And for each child the picture they conjure has been personal and unique. What did Gollum look like? How did he speak? And what was it like in his pitch-dark, slimy cave? Imagination isn't bounded by the covers of a book. But put the story on stage, and the picture becomes set (that is, until the film comes out and if we're talking JRR Tolkien, that's Christmas 2001).

Children's novels are everywhere but on the bookshelf these days - not just hogging eight hours of airtime on Radio 4, but in the West End, at the RSC in Stratford, and in theatres up and down the country. Within half a square mile in London you will find adaptations of The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Raymond Briggs's The Snowman, and, come February, The Secret Garden, already transferring from a successful run in Stratford. Are the adaptors of these treasured works aware they may be trampling on dreams?

Glyn Robbins, the man responsible for turning The Hobbit into a stage play, is heavily aware, and not just because he has the Tolkien fan club breathing down his neck. (Remember all those student anorak nerds who read Lord of the Rings cover-to-cover every autumn term? They're still at it.) Robbins thinks of his job "chiefly as a translator, translating the author's creative intentions from one medium to another, being as truthful as I possibly can." Obviously, he says, there are some bits of a book that resist, but filleting these out helps get the script down to a manageable length.

"In The Hobbit Tolkien spends pages on descriptions of food and landscape. Cut these and the thing begins to be stageable". More difficult, he says, was dramatic consistency. "The first half is a great adventure story, full of incidents and battles. Then it develops into another book entirely, a kind of psychological thriller. And once you begin to analyse the themes, you realise the book is packed with politics and history."

Really? "Well, there are ethnic issues - all those vendettas between dwarfs and elves, and goblins and elves, between mountain dwarfs and valley dwarfs; and there's capitalism - with humans selling alcohol to the elves. It's also a growing-up, right-of-passage novel, with the Hobbit maturing to become the disillusioned Hobbit at the start of The Lord of the Rings." Funny what you miss when you're 10.

For Marsha Norman, the New York writer behind the RSC's Secret Garden, adapting the Edwardian novel as a musical was initially very tricky since - unlike almost every other reading female in the English-speaking world - she hadn't read it as a child. And when she did, she couldn't see what the fuss was about. "Yet other people's response was so consistent. So I kept asking myself: what is it about this book? Why have parents read it to their kids for 85 years? I couldn't attempt an adaptation until I had that clear."

Her answer was that "the novel has a message everyone wants to hear, that loss and grief are survivable and that life can start over. It has a central character we care about, who lives in two worlds we find intriguing, namely the indoors and the outdoors. It has some beautiful language, a couple of scary parts, a nasty character or two, and a great ending." Does that mean it simply fell out of the covers and onto the stage?

"You can't cut up a sofa to make a chair," is how she puts it. "You don't try to recreate the book on stage, you try to recreate the experience of the book. The audience don't care how faithful you're being, so long as the show gives them the same feeling they had when they first read the book."

Her task began with the child protagonist, sour-tempered Mary Lennox. How could Norman make her horrid enough at the beginning without the audience losing interest? What's more, how could she keep her at the centre of the plot? In the novel, she recedes halfway through, and the focus moves to her cousin, the bed-ridden and equally sour Colin. And how to keep absent Uncle Archibald in the story? "In novels, it's OK for characters to disappear for 300 pages because other characters can remember them or think about them. But if a character is off-stage in a musical for most of two acts, the best actor in the world can't make us feel anything for him in the final scene."

The natural world poses another hurdle in the transition from page to stage. In The Hobbit, the designers' ingenuity is stretched to the limit to supply extremes of weather. Nevertheless they go for realistic thunderstorms, fog, rain and hail. In The Secret Garden, the problems seem more intractable. How to have a robin without using animation or holography? How to make a garden grow on stage without pretending to dig?

The answers for Marsha Norman turned out to be as interesting as the questions. "In a show where a garden is the controlling metaphor, you mustn't actually dig in the dirt at all - real flowers look like set dressing, and flower pots just look stupid. And it's hard to show winter and spring without resorting to cliché, but you can show dark and light, and that's what does the trick for us."

But however true and faithful an adaptation may be, isn't there a danger that it lessens the urge to read the original? The evidence suggests just the opposite. When Glyn Robbins adapted The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1984 (not the RSC's current musical, but a straight-play version), the book was nowhere in the children's bestseller lists. After 10 years on the road visiting 103 British towns and cities, it was number four.

In any case, the audience is only partly made up of children. Vanessa Ford, The Hobbit's producer, was surprised by the audience profile during the show's provincial tour. More than half were adult males. And not just doting dads, either. In Buxton, Derbyshire one night the show pulled in the entire leather-clad contingent of a bikers' convention. And there was also the time her company was playing Winnie the Pooh at the Royalty, and she noticed a block booking for 200. It turned out to be an outing of Fellows of the Royal Society.