Adapting books for the stage or screen seems to be completely irresistible. We are compelled to take words on a page and transform them into a visual, tangible form; it is so common that it is an unsaid assumption and expectation that an acclaimed book will be adapted. By watching, we agree to abandon our own imaginations – our private, personal visions of and connections with the book – for a couple of hours, in order to take part in this shared experience of someone else’s. We excitedly accept the invitation, out of curiosity: what will the story be like when the characters are physically there before our eyes? Will it match our vision of it? And, crucially, will anything be different?
These questions were running through my head when I watched the trailer for the TV adaption of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and then waited with eager anticipation for it to appear on BBC iPlayer. I was happy that it had been adapted, that I was being offered more from a book that I loved. But why did I need more? What Sally Rooney wrote is far from unsatisfying, but evidently what we are still left with is a desire to see it taken further and an urge to do so.
Original novels are often adapted to do just this: to further explore their meaning, sometimes to push their apparent boundaries or conclusions. Yet the most common compliment of an adaption is “it’s true to the book”. Candice Carty Williams wrote that the Normal People adaption is “sublime”, that, despite her biggest fears, it did the book justice and did not disappoint because Rooney herself wrote the script. Most people I know feel the same way. The lingering shots and slow pace do capture the intensity of the novel and the sense of Rooney’s intimate, evocative sort of writing.But as I watched the first episode, I couldn’t stop thinking about Rooney’s original writing. About how it creates a particularly intimate relationship between the reader and the characters, and therefore the reader and writer. It has such a strong impact on the reader’s mind and holds a profound, personal place there. So I wondered how this connection could possibly survive when a director, and then actors, and then a screen, were placed in between.
Maintaining this connection is the challenge with taking original writing and reimagining it on stage or screen. All the questions of how to interpret it, what to do with the script, how much freedom to give actors, how faithful to be to the original and how to make it good, can often be resolved by answering one: what will make the audience connect with it? The key to a successful adaption might be this simple. But achieving it isn’t. Different people connect with different stories, and likewise people’s reactions to adaptions vary so wildly – according to connection, as well as taste – that it seems that whichever approach is taken, there will be criticism.
Whilst “it’s true to the book” appears to be the most flattering reaction, often audiences actually seek something new. Innovative or experimental plays, with a “fresh approach”, are often the most highly celebrated. This tends to be the case with texts that have been adapted over and over again, with directors all wanting to have their say in interpretation: the most distinct adaptions are the best. They are often more engaging and enjoyable, tearing away from nostalgic expectations of the original.Though it was actually written for the stage, Hamlet is a perfect example of this. It has obsessed directors and actors and seen countless adaptions, no doubt with plenty more to come. Classics like Jane Eyre, Frankenstein and an endless list of others have been reimagined innumerable times. We keep on doing it and keep on watching them, because it is guaranteed that each one will be different, at least subtly.
Robert Icke is a theatre director known for reworking classics and adapting them to modern times. His production of Hamlet stood out as ‘good’ and ‘successful’ because it took the original and explored its most captivating ideas in a novel way. If he had stuck rigorously to the text it would not have shocked or amazed. And isn’t this how we should feel as an audience?And then there is the question of accessibility. Perhaps the most important of them all. Transferring books to TV, film or theatre means some of the best stories ever written can be told to more people. Literacy levels vary, as do preferences and interests. Not everyone loves books, not everyone loves films. And not everyone – in fact, only a small minority – can afford sky-high theatre prices.
So, adaptions make stories more widely accessible, present and prevalent in our culture. Important, marginalised, intelligent and funny voices, and stories that need to be told and heard, are given a bigger and better platform through adaptions. The question of why we adapt original books and what makes a successful adaption can perhaps be answered by questioning why we write and tell stories: to share, to entertain, to educate, to express and explore the human experience so that others may understand or feel less alone, to give a voice to the voiceless.
We all deserve to enjoy and benefit from these things, in whatever form the story takes, and through a variety of experiences. And we deserve to have the choice, to have an option. Adaptions liberate us and expose us to more. They allow us to be faced with 1,900-page classic novels and have the delightful alternatives of a West End production or a film: I really don’t know of anyone who, given the choice, wouldn’t opt for settling down in front of the screen or stage.