It must be a trial to adapt a book for film or television. Without the budget and time to bring the nuances of every character arc and description to life, you must always feel like you’re on a hiding to nothing. The fans of the original text will reject every altered or omitted scene, every composite character. If you yourself admire or love the original, it must be like Sophie’s Choice in deciding how to approach the material.
I’ve Reckoned before about the brutal poetry of Cormac McCarthy’s prose, most especially in The Road, possibly my favourite book of all time, and how that was adapted into a film by Joe Penhall and directed by John Hillcoat. McCarthy’s prose is unlike almost everything else I’ve ever read: often lacking punctuation or indications of speech, it forces the reader to concentrate on every word, on the rhythms of the sentences, which adds astonishing depth and richness to the mere words.
In Blood Meridian he makes real the savagery of the Old West in constantly unflinching terms. Early in the novel, a group of riders are set upon by marauding Comanches, who appear to have arrived from some surreal version of Hell…
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil…
…and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like the vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Sentences are extended and extended, until you feel your imagination cannot take the brutality, the rush of images and descriptions that assault every sense and every sensibility. The attack and slaughter goes on for a couple of pages, there is no escape.
…And now the horses of the dead came pounding out of the smoke and dust and circled with flapping leather and wild manes and eyes whited with fear like the eyes of the blind and some were feathered with arrows and some lanced through and stumbling and vomiting blood as they wheeled across the killing ground and clattered from sight again. Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.
I’m not sure about you, but I think I need a lie-down after that. Apparently a film is in development. I can’t see it will get even close to that level of violence (and that’s just one scene…).
The BBC recently produced a two-part, just-shy-of-three-hours adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong. Billed as a flagship drama, it condensed the shifting times of the plot into a simpler story of the WW1 trenches and one soldier’s memory of a doomed love affair before that war. The production was beautiful, with excellent period detail and impressive effects, and the trenches were recreated to terrible effect.
Nevertheless I Reckon that Abi Morgan, who adapted the work with Faulks himself, effectively conceded the limitations of the medium in doing so. Subtleties within the original storytelling, the order of revealing events and the emotional journey of the reader were lost. The structure of the TV version repeatedly intercut from the trenches to the pre-war affair and vice versa, when in the novel the protagonist only rarely had those ‘flashback’ moments of recall. The experience of the fighting was so intensely realised in prose that it was overwhelming, all-engulfing. TV adaptations have to accelerate the action, and inevitably miss out on the underlying meaning.
After the Big Attack during the Battle of The Somme, the survivors regroup and a roll-call is held, where the full extent of the tragedy becomes clear. This was well-handled in the TV version, as it panned across the men; exhausted, shattered, realising their comrades are all dead. But even that doesn’t get close to the amazing richness of Faulks’ original…
Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forbears, the villages and the towns where the telegram would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn, where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without the sounds of fathers and their children, without young men in the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their fathers’ shattered flesh that lay in stinking shellholes in the beet-crop soil, leaving their homes instead to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference.
Only in this beautiful, heartbreaking sentence do we get the full impact of WW1, of the loss of humanity in both physical and spiritual terms. Throughout the novel’s sections in the war, the characters reflect that nothing will ever be the same for mankind now that we have proved ourselves capable of inflicting that level of inhumanity and violence upon each other. This much greater meaning is lost in the TV adaptation, as it concentrated the drama into one soldier. But I Reckon that does Faulks a disservice. His novel, for all its personal intimacy and beauty, depicts the personal losses against the larger impact of the war, across communities, nations and generations.
Birdsong and Blood Meridian are both masterpieces, but their ambition and achievements in realising the horrors and beauty of humanity cannot easily or satisfactorily be translated onto screen.