Tom Sutcliffe: Don't put your novel on the stage

The week in culture

Friday 01 October 2010 00:00 BST

You would think that Trevor Nunn might have learned his lesson after Gone With the Wind, a brutal instruction in how difficult it can be to transfer a grand romantic narrative, set against a backdrop of epic conflict, to the stage. But here he goes again with Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks's durably bestselling novel about the First World War. And, yes, he might well have thought, "this time, at least, I don't have to burn Atlanta to the ground" – but the absence of that conundrum was surely more than compensated for by the fact that some of the most dramatic passages in Faulks book occur deep underground, in the narrow tunnels being dug by sappers under the German front line. Some critics (including this paper's, to my own considerable surprise) seem to have felt that his boldness was justified and that Birdsong is a success. I thought it was little short of a theatrical disaster, and an object lesson in the follies of some kinds of literary adaptation.

The old rule of thumb in this matter – at least when it applies to film and television – is that bad books make good films, and vice versa. And admirers of Faulks's original may be able to console themselves with that thought, should they find themselves dismayed by the travesty on stage at the Comedy Theatre.

But the old rule of thumb doesn't go quite far enough, because the odd truth is that the theatre can take qualities which are a virtue on the page and convert them into a vice. Take narrative structure, for example, which may find itself awkwardly exposed on stage. A novel – particularly a novel of literary ambition like Birdsong – may well be strengthened by a plot that draws on coincidence and melodramatic turns of fate. For one thing it can clothe that armature so skilfully that you forget that it's there at all. The duration of the novel and its density of texture mask the scaffolding that's holding it up.

Thomas Hardy, for example, used plots of almost embarrassing crudity, if boiled down to their skeleton. And yet you barely notice that in the books, because the bare bones are in their proper place – decently interred. On stage the bones have to be present and correct, or the loyalists moan, but there's little room left for what clothes them.

Film, oddly enough, isn't in quite as many difficulties here because it can offer a kind of substitute for the literary scope of a novel (the feeling you get with a good book that its frame of reference extends beyond your line of sight). The spectacle of a good film adaptation, the interplay between long-shots and close-ups, and the commanding authorial potency of the cinematic edit, are all workable substitutes for a novel's totalitarian control of your perception. On stage, though, the resources available to a director are less expansive – and, more importantly, most of them hover dangerously close to the theatrically vulgar. You might be able to coerce an audience with a single spotlight, but you're hardly going to reduce the sense of melodrama if you do. And, where a film adaptation can at least persuade you that it offers a powerfully competitive kind of realism – in bringing to life the horror of a frontal assault, say, or the terrifying claustrophobia of a tunnel – on stage your attempts are always going to be tainted with ingenuity. That is: the audience encounters an effect and thinks, "that was quite a clever way of solving the problem". That isn't nothing, I suppose, but if you've started with a piece of prose that makes your palms sweat with induced claustrophobia it may feel a long way short of enough. Effectively the theatrical adaptation is praised for just scrambling over an obstacle that it has created itself.

One of the critics who shared my view of Birdsong described it as a "noble failure" . I think I know why he added the adjective – it feels like a work that both wants to honour the book and the book's subject (its finest moment as a theatre is an entr'acte projection during which a list of the casualties at the Somme rolls slowly upwards on the safety curtain). But there's a point at which noble failure stops being noble and starts being folly. To use a faded cliché which actually has some pertinence to Birdsong: when it comes to literary adaptations, Trevor Nunn appears to be in a hole. He should stop digging.

Franzen stays pure and simple everytime

Jonathan Franzen, as has been widely publicised, writes in the literary equivalent of anchorite's cell – facing a blank white wall and with very limited connections to the outside world. His laptop has been reverse engineered – severing email and internet links, so that it is effectively just a pad of blank paper with a keyboard attached. And these are, Franzen suggests, the minimum and necessary requirements for his creativity. Reading such a thing we're inclined to take it that the resulting prose is in some way "organic". It has been produced, we feel, without additives or artificial emulsifiers, in conditions of intellectual hygiene. So what we find on the page is somehow more purely literary than might be the case if Franzen was breaking off now and then to have a quick game of Angry Birds because he'd hit a tough patch. Reading Freedom the other day, though, I did find myself thinking that this analysis doesn't take into account the mind's powerful capacity to distract itself – particularly when deprived of external stimulus. As Franzen describes it he doesn't have much of a choice in this matter. It's either this method or nothing – and obviously a book that exists is always going to win out in an argument with one that doesn't. But I don't think we should assume that a book written in the absence of external distraction is necessarily more purely "itself" than one that isn't. How many of our greatest passages of literature, I wonder, owe their existence to the distraction that turns out to be a serendipity?

Emma is, like, really old school

I thought Emma Thompson was singularly brave to tick off the pupils at her old school for the sloppiness of their spoken language, thus offending against two current orthodoxies: the notion that teenagers must never be told that they are falling short in any way and the idea that no way of speaking is inherently superior to another. But she was clearly right to get tetchy at the indifference to the demarcation between formal and informal language. For one thing, if the boundaries become blurred, you don't have the fun of switching from one to the other inappropriately, an argument that might commend itself even to the stroppiest teenager. For another thing, it's not so much that sloppy speech makes people sound thick as that it makes them sound dull. I particularly hate "like" myself because it always seems to promise a simile and then fails to deliver. "It's, like, really stupid?" doesn't do anything at all for the description "really stupid", except to provide a faint verbal drum-roll, which it then doesn't live up to. Thompson helpfully supplied a vivid example of how the word should be used in a sentence, when she explained the consequences of not being able to shift up a gear in articulacy. "You're going to sound like a knob," she said. "Like" introduces a simile, you see, and the word picture is so much more lively as a result.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in