Week 103: The Film of the Book

untitled (6)It is a truth universally acknowledged that nowadays ‘I’ve read that’ can mean ‘I’ve seen the film’. There is no moral ground to be fought over here; frankly, in a world dealing with Isil, Donald Trump and climate change, no-one really gives a hoot whether you have read Middlemarch or watched the BBC adaptation. Sometimes your belief that because you once saw a film with the same name as a book you have not read you know what happens is misplaced. Mr Darcy, GCSE, A level and undergraduate English Literature students please note, does not go swimming in his undies at any point in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Neither Winnie-the-Pooh nor Babe are Americans in the books by AA Milne and Dick King-Smith (The Sheep Pig and utterly delightful). Come to that, the dull Inspector Morse has an equally dull and older sergeant in Colin Dexter’s novels. So the shape-shifting vertiginous journey from page to screen is an unpredictable process with very few rules. Add to that the fact that every film adaptation will infuriate at least as many I’ve-read-the-book viewers as it woos I’ve-never-read-the-book-and-I’m-not-planning-to, and you can see that all judgments are entirely subjective and you might find yourself shouting at the screen if you read on.

Let’s start with an easy one. Pride and Prejudice has been filmed twice (however tempting, I am ignoring Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, about to be unleashed upon a grateful, or bored, world). The 1940 version starred Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson and the principal hand in the script seems to have been Aldous Huxley’s. The plot bears some resemblance to the novel but is kinder, simpler and more romantic: three adjectives that illustrate the gulf between script and Austen, whose genius lies in her clear-sighted ability to be ruthlessly nasty about her characters. Olivier does his moody cleft-chin stuff to denote the romantic hero, an approach he had perfected the year before as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. I suppose we could be charitable and consider his performance in Pride and Prejudice as valuable war-work. Heaven knows people in Britain needed escapist, romantic films to go and see during the war, and this hugely popular film undoubtedly did its bit on both sides of the Atlantic to keep an idea of a heritage worth fighting for in the forefront of the public mind.

untitled (5)Sixty-five years later, the gods of the film industry decreed that the time was ripe for a new version, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. The first odd thing about this perfectly passable adaptation is how uninteresting it is compared to the same producers’ earlier film of Helen Fielding’s clever modernisation of Pride and Prejudice: yes, of course, the really jolly Bridget Jones’s Diary (but don’t bother with Bridget Jones 2, 3 and so on ad infinitum: notice that Miss Austen did not do sequels).   And the other oddity is, ‘why did they bother?’, when the BBC version, made in 1995 and starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, still held its unassailable iconic status, wet shirts notwithstanding.

imagesGAFL9CJJThe BBC’s great advantage, of course, was being able to tell its two-hundred-or-so page story across six 55-minute episodes rather than the edited-highlights approach dictated by a film’s two hours or so. The great exemplar of How to Film a Novel was made by Granada Television in 1981. In eleven languid but compelling episodes, Charles Sturridge (and Michael Lindsay-Hogg) creased the spine of their paperback edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited at Page 1and filmed exactly what the text said. That they also, serendipitously, found the perfect cast, the perfect locations and even the perfect music is all part of the magic. Someone made a film of the same name in 2008. Oh well.

The elbow-room that television allows is why the BBC Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is absorbing while the film is baffling. Should you be in the mood for an extended masterclass in acting, I can heartily recommend a weekend indoors watching Alex Guinness glacially and monumentally bring George Smiley to life in Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People. You could, of course, make it a personal Le Carré festival by reading the books. John Le Carré, or David Cornwell as his parents thought of him, has written twenty-three novels so far, not one of them a dud. Better make it quite a long weekend.

There are books which, while perfectly good in themselves, are not a patch on their apotheosis in film. Graham Greene wrote the novella The Third Man as a warm-up exercise for the screenplay: publishing it must have felt like a redundancy. John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps is a fast-moving adventure story with endless twists and daring escapes: Hitchcock’s film plays fast and loose with the novel and is much more fun. Several other films of the book have been made, including one or two infinitely more faithful to the original. Never mind: what you want is Robert Donat and Carole Lombard. Then there are the terrible books that made terrible movies: The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey come unbidden to mind. Even mountitled (4)re guilty of Crimes Against Celluloid are the terrible movies that feed upon the desolate corpses of perfectly decent books; or, in the case of The Cat in the Hat, -much-loved and important books. Please, Mike Myers, never do that again.

Films tell stories, and so do novels. They exist and thrive because we, their readers and audience, are forever greedy for more tales to enthral us, delight us, move us, horrify us and make us think. We are homo fabulans, the animal that tries to make sense of the world it finds itself in by imagining scenarios. It matters not a jot whether we read War and Peace or watch the latest adaptation. Either way, we will be letting Tolstoy take us by the hand and draw us into the lives of people we will love, or hate, judge and care about, as we let the story help us ask why we humans behave as we do. As Marshall McLuhan didn’t say, the medium doesn’t matter much. Find what works for you and get the message.

Well, when did we last have such an impeccably non-gratuitous picture?

Well, when did we last have such an impeccably non-gratuitous picture?

Week 64: Gunpowder, Treasons and Plots

fireworksFirework displays now being a public event best held on a weekend evening (no school tomorrow) as well as on November 5th itself, it is possible to dodge about in your local area and go to three or four to satisfy your cravings for loud bangs and sparkly lights. In the NorthernReader household it is a widely-held, but incorrect, belief that the nation leaps into this paroxysm of fiery festivity to celebrate our wedding anniversary – yes, Reader, I married him on November 5th, thus extinguishing any possibility of getting away with forgetting the date. The lovely KatePonders has also now discovered for herself that Germany does not mark the occasion, whether of the NorthernReader nuptials or of the foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

It is quite odd, as of course so many things are should we actually stop for a moment to think about them, that we cheerfully celebrate what, whichever way you look at it, was quite a nasty incident. Had Catesby and his chums succeeded, pretty much the entire ruling class in England would have been wiped out – and before you mutter, ‘no loss’ and start toying with radical sympathies, it is probably worth spending a moment or two considering the pain, suffering and death the project would have inflicted. Even the most unpleasant governments are made up of real live human beings, and causing them gratuitous suffering should be no part of our plans. Which noble thought brings us to what did actually happen, which was the harrowing torture and execution of the failed plotters. In amongst the dates we mark in this country, it would perhaps be good to include 13th August 1964. Not familiar with it? It is the date on which the last death sentences in the United Kingdom were carried out.

Gunpowder_Plot_conspiratorsSo a thoroughly grisly bookshelf seems to be in order this week. Let’s start with Antonia Fraser, who has written extensively on the Gunpowder Plot. She is a terrific guide to historical events because she brings to her narratives the instincts of a thriller-writer (which she also is). Admittedly it would take a heart of stone not to find the unfolding details of the 1605 plot utterly absorbing, but I suspect that Fraser could make the Repeal of the Corn Laws into a page-turner. She contributed one of the very best chapters to the compelling Gunpowder Plots, a collection of highly enjoyable essays by experts in their various fields – the history of explosives, early Stuart Britain, the politics of monarchy – published in 2005, the four-hundredth anniversary of the failed coup attempt.

Bearing in mind the extremely sensible observation of Sir John Harrington, ‘Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason’, we might limit the treacherous stretches of our bookshelf to a couple of must-reads: Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. If you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s film, incidentally, do so: but read the book as well. And I think we should have Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands while we’re about it. Hugely influential as more or less the founding text of the spy novel genre, the novel – which remains gripping to this day – was widely credited with forcing a change in British military and naval policy in preparing for possible invasion. Childers’ life was almost unfeasibly dramatic and, ultimately, tragic : there are biographies, of which Leonard Piper’s Dangerous Waters: the Life and Death of Erskine Childers is a fine example, and it seems strange that as yet there has been no film.

We have talked before (Week 28) about our regrettable tendency to glamorise spying and treachery. It is sobering to read of some of the Cold War conspiracies – A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre, Michael Holzman’s Guy Burgess (although you must promise to see Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, with Alan Bates as Burgess and Coral Browne as herself). We should remember, too, that the Armada was not some jolly boating party serendipitously fended off by Francis Drake in between games of bowls. The Spanish were attempting to slip up the English Channel to land in the Low Countries, pick up their army, a byword for terror, and invade England. The plan was more Pol Pot than the costumes let on. If you want to know what people who bruegel_kindermoord_detail_grthad a taste of them thought of the Spanish army, look, long, hard and thoughtfully, as Bruegel’s painting, The Massacre of the Innocents. Notice how it isn’t set in first-century Palestine? See the storm-trooper gear the soldiers are wearing?

My point, dearest reader, is that enforced change is rarely an awfully good thing: and that the merchants of change are so depressingly often better at the enforcing than the changing. Non-fiction – history, biography – tells us this, but fiction makes us know it in our hearts. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory will give us plenty to contemplate. Quick: let us draw comfort from John Donne. Who but Donne could take the age-old fear of treachery and betrayal in love and turn it to sublime triumph?

Here upon earth, we’re Kings, and none but we

Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects be.

Who is so safe as we? Where none can do

Treason to us, except one of us two.

Written while that same James who was the target of the Gunpowder Plot still sat upon his throne, Donne’s poem, ‘The Anniversarie’, shelters us from paranoia and a world where we are told to be afraid all the time. Find love, he says, and you can know what it is to trust. It’s worth setting off a few fireworks to celebrate.fireworks-newcastle-5JPG

Week 55: Country Pursuits

realclay4Had you sidled up to me to impart the information, possibly in a whisper, that spending a morning trying to shoot little saucers made of clay out of the sky would be such fun, I just might have looked askance at you. But you would have been right, and I would have been …. less right than usual. Clay shooting is great, not least because it is a precious addition to my little fund of Sports You Can Chat While Doing. Companionable, only madly competitive if you do it in the company of madly competitive people (the very nice Peter Wilson, Olympic gold medallist, for example), and the tiniest bit silly: what could be more fun? My new addiction is fed by Alan Hawkings at Northumberland Clays (that’s what to do when next you are in this neck of the woods sorted, then. You can thank me later).

All this country living had already introduced me to the joys of fly-fishing. I think I should tell you that the first time a fishing trip was proposed to me, I did not thrill. Fishing was right up there with golf and bridge as hobbies I hoped I would reach my desired quota of 103 years without ever having experienced. And then Finlay The Ghillie From Heaven showed me how to cast my first fly ….. Now I have a secret nagging doubt. What if I’m …. less right than usual about golf and bridge as well? It is in this reflective frame of mind that I turn to books for guidance

I have three indispensable bedside books for fishing. They are Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Jeremy Paxman’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life and Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots, which I recommended to you in Week 30. Paxman may be famous in legend and song for the worthwhile pursuit of politician-baiting (and pompous-student-deflating on University Challenge), but his heart clearly lies out on the river and his fishing anthology is an abiding pleasure. Walton is one of those Ur-books that are more talked about than read, I suspect, and yet another pretender to the title of the most-reprinted book in the galaxy. The fly-fishing chapters were added by his chum, Charles Cotton, and remain perfectly practical and sound advice. Norman Thelwell’s Compleat Tangler, on the other hand, is probably less useful as a manual, but it is heaven fthelwell 1or those of us who adore his inimitable illustrations of English country life. To be completely honest, his fishing cartoons lag behind his glorious pony pictures – but then, what doesn’t? They have to be the most perfect commentary on the horsey life ever published.

Shooting, and the perils thereof, is covered by Isabel Colegate’s atmospheric The Shooting Party, which has something of the suspenseful atmosphere of LP Hartley’s mesmerising The Go-Between about it. They are both completely successful in evoking the pre-Great War world in which they are set, and both somehow feel as if that world is holding its breath in anticipation of what is to come. Chekhov also wrote a novel called The Shooting Party, which I have not read and truth to tell, had not heard of until I spotted a copy at Barter Books last week. I will immediately get reading, not only in a spirit of topic-based enquiry but because I am a fully paid-up member of the ‘Chekhov was a genius’ society. It is the only novel he ever wrote, and – hurray! – it is a detective story, so I think I am in for a splendid time.

I never could resist a good profile

I never could resist a good profile

The Mitford sisters –or the speakable-of ones, at any rate – proved adept at chronicling country pursuits, both traditional – Lord Redesdale was an indefatigable rider to hounds, courser of hares and bagger of pheasant, partridge and grouse – and less so – the invention of the child-hunt, when foxes were thin on the ground, being one his more notable achievements. He appears as himself, more or less, in Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which is as good an account as you’ll get of (eccentric, I grant you) country life among the upper classes in the Thirties; and as Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s affecting The Pursuit of Love, which, with its sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, is howlingly funny as well as tragically sad.

The thought of the Mitford children being pursued by a pack of hounds reminds me of the hound in the red jersey in Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children. The children, Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are actually exemplary incomers to the countryside, scampering about out of doors and making their own entertainment – although the bitter truth is probably that, given today’s technology and half a chance, they’d have been stewing indoors glued to a console. Beware romanticising the past, in other words, and always remember that Bobbie and Phyllis were wearing those terribly useful red flannel petticoats because it was bloody cold out of doors.Unlike, I am delighted to report, here. After a brief encounter with Hurricane Bertha, we have pleasingly reverted to our customary glorious weather. Time to get outside. If not with fishing-rod, shotgun or dog-leash in hand, how about with a book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits.  Spotted the film-of-the-book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits. Spotted the film-of-the-book?

Week 26: Books for a Train Journey

Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Trains haven’t actually sounded like that for ages, or possibly for ever, but they do when we imagine them: which is all my dear readers in the benighted and line-less West Country can do at present.  So, time to curl up with a good book and transport ourselves back to a golden age of travel.‘Northumberland Coast’, BR (NER) poster, 1948-1965.

Almost as much as I like the fact that time only had to shape up and get accurate across Britain when the railways were invented (timetables meant that one couldn’t really say, ‘well, the train from London will be along at half past two.  Ish’: although of course as it turned out, 2.30-ish would be a utopian paradise of prompt arrival compared to the sadly current ‘well, the train from London should pitch up some time in the next six months when we’ve finished thinking about improving the line’) – almost as much as that, I like the impact that the railway had on fiction.  While I treasure a letter from my great-great-great grandfather to his beloved, casually and really rather thrillingly letting her know that he was planning to drive down for the weekend, in reality what he was showing off about (this was 1809) was that he was a young man about town with a gig, and his nipping off to darkest Berkshire was going to take quite a chunk of the weekend – up to and including the following Wednesday, in fact, the idea of the weekend being at least as much in its infancy as was the steam engine – and rather more planning than invading France.  His was the world of Jane Austen, who was only nine years his senior: a world of Colonel Brandon rushing off  hither and yon on horseback (which, now I think about it, he does have a bit of a tendency to do) and frightful aunts pitching up in carriages.  A single generation later, and the train had arrived in fiction.

Perhaps its single most dramatic effect was, as in life, to bring people together.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (not, I should add, the Hardy to embark upon if you’re on your own and feeling a bit low: it’s not the cheeriest book ever written) relies heavily upon the Great Western Railway to bring its tragic characters together and, this being Hardy, to tear them apart.  Dickens was also on the despondent side when it came  to trains, long before he was himself involved in a ghastly railway accident  – and the moral of that particular story, dearest reader, is do not travel with someone you would be embarrassed to be in an accident with – and trains figure in Dombey and Son entirely as agents of disaster.   Trains, and of course stations, figure quite prominently in the life and work of Tolstoy, too: not only does a train provide a most useful plot device in Anna Karenina, but Tolstoy himself had a tendency to flit about the vastness of Russia by locomotive and even managed a highly theatrical death-scene at a railway station which you can’t help suspecting the master story-teller must have hugely enjoyed.

We haven't had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

We haven’t had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

But where train travel really seems to come into its own is in crime fiction.  We begin with Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, who swoops down to solve the mystery of The Moonstone thanks to the speed and reliability of the railways.  Where Wilkie Collins (a good friend of Dickens, incidentally) led, Conan Doyle was happy to follow, and Sherlock Holmes constantly gads about the place by train (and let’s not talk about errors in Tube journeys or whatever it was that made some of the more concrete watchers of BBC’s jolly enjoyable Sherlock get themselves into a flutter).  Holmes and Watson, who once would have taken several days and a series of stage coaches to get anywhere, spend most of the canon whooshing off from London to further-flung parts of England (although, sadly, they missed out on the glorious North-East – no doubt a tribute to the low crime rates in this part of the world).  By the twentieth century, a really avid reader might well start to feel a trifle uneasy about hopping onto a train lest the worst befall her.  The most pessimistic about your chances of getting through a journey unscathed is of course Agatha Christie.  What with The 4.50 from Paddington, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Murder on the Orient Express, it’s a wonder we don’t all catch the bus.  But think what interestingly deranged people we would miss out on meeting: surely no-one is immune to reading Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train without murmuring ‘what fun’?  And there is always the chance of romance, although do not be bamboozled by the truly splendid Hitchcock film of The Thirty Nine Steps to expect love to blossom on the Flying Scotsman: Richard Hannay is indeed at least as much a man-on-a-train as a man-on-the-run, but he is never diverted by mere females from single-handedly saving Britain’s secrets in 1914.

trainTalking of desperate heroes fleeing their pursuers, all this talk of trains lets us realise that Kenneth Grahame got there first: Mr Toad, among his many achievements, must figure as one of the very earliest men – well, alright, toads, but you know what I mean – on the run in literature, even if his disguise as a washer-woman is somewhat less suave than Hannay’s.  Children’s books abound with trains and we should probably acknowledge the Reverend Awdry’s  Thomas the Tank Engine, although for me they were always a bit too trainspotty (in the sense of appealing to the inner anorak rather than the inner heroin-user from Leith).  No, let’s end by celebrating that power of the railway to offer new hope.  Michael Bond – another Reverend – did a gentle interest in trains supersede the botany and palaeontology of their Victorian precursors? – recognised that a railway station might be a very possible place for different worlds to collide, and so a small bear from darkest Peru became Paddington and lived happily ever after.  And, greatest of all (and I defy you to watch Jenny Agutter at the end of the perfectly lovely film without sobbing your socks off), who can forget Bobbie, running down the station platform with the heart-breaking cry, ‘Daddy! My Daddy!’