Bringing Literature to Life, Saturday 13th October, 2pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation
Words by Simran Hans.
I love books. There’s nothing quite like diving headfirst into somebody else’s richly detailed imaginings, falling head-over-heels in love with their carefully-crafted invented world. Well-written prose has the ability to deconstruct our most fervent beliefs, to fundamentally alter the way in which we approach the world, to make us dizzy with the possibility of change. However, it is a myth that literature is perfect in and of itself. In many cases, literature is even more powerful, more resonant, and more earth-shatteringly visceral when re-imagined and brought to life as drama.
Three masters of adaptation join an intimate audience in Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation: Jeremy Dyson, who is currently working on Sky Arts-commissioned comedy sketch show Pyscho Bitches, in which a therapist is subject to the problems of some of history’s most interesting women; Jane Rogers, who is in the midst of adapting her own Man Booker Prize-listed novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb for radio, alongside writing a new novel; and Nick Stafford, who is working on a young adult adventure novel. They are writers who have been approached to adapt literature (for both radio and the stage) based on the quality of their original works. They share the tricks of their trade in a special Q&A session, chaired by writer-director Joyce Branagh.
Dyson, The League of Gentlemen member and co-creator of West End hit Ghost Stories, gets the ball rolling, launching into an animated conversation about how he came to adapt Roald Dahl’s collection of short stories Tales of the Unexpected for the stage. The delicate art of locating and preserving the original author’s worldview, while managing to create something innovative is cited as a struggle by all three writers. How does one even begin to go about protecting the integrity of the author and their original work? This factor is particularly important when the author in question is dead.
“Mostly, I’ve adapted dead people,” Rogers declares with a wry smile. Indeed, Rogers has adapted the work of several (very famous) dead people, including Charlotte Bronte and Thomas Hardy. Why bother tampering with established literary classics like Bronte’s Shirley or Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, asks an audience member. Rogers, who lectures in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University when she’s not busy being a novelist, argues that the point of adapting literature is not to rubbish the original, but rather, to make it more accessible, to figure out the ways in which it is culturally relevant to a present-day audience.
And yet, the adaptation still has negative connotations, posits Branagh. Why are there so many adaptations, she asks. Stafford complicates Branagh’s question, drawing from his jacket a long list of current West End productions. He reads them out – only to reveal that just one of the many plays listed (The Chorus Line) is an original work. Stafford’s cynicism is duly noted; any published book sitting on any shelf, anywhere, has been approved by some hot-shot literary agent and green-lit for mass consumption; it’s a movie treatment on a silver platter.
Yet Stafford, who is best known for his Tony-award winning stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, circles back, reminding us that the best thing about theatre and film is the fact that they are collaborative efforts. Morpurgo himself dealt with the production aspect of the process but it is the coming together of script editors and producers which make War Horse a dynamic, creatively fulfilling and diverse project, as well as a welcome break from the solitary nature of writing.
Though Stafford, Rogers and Dyson vary in their approaches to adapting literature, what is intriguing is the way in which they uniformly relish the limits enforced by both the format and financial restrictions. Rogers in particular seems to delight in the challenge of adapting her own work, a challenge which she claims allows her to be “more cavalier about the whole process”, stopping her from falling into the writer’s trap of self-indulgent narcissism. Refining, restructuring and streamlining – sometimes a work’s heart is the only thing that remains the same, after it has been subject to the adaptation process. And really, that’s all that matters.
Simran Hans is a writer, student and David Fincher enthusiast. She is editor of online film journal Kubrick on the Guillotine, and has written for alternative film school SOHK.tv, The Guardian and Manchester’s international centre for contemporary art and film, Cornerhouse. You can follow her on Twitter here.
You can read more reviews of this event, by students at the Centre for New Writing, on The Manchester Review.