Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before?

Things adapted from other things: a staple of modern pop culture. The world is full of films adapted from books, books adapted from films, musicals adapted from real life, books adapted from video games, comics adapted from films, films adapted from theme park rides, video games adapted from toys adapted from films (Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 for PS3, anyone?). Naturally, coming up with original ideas is tricky, and adaptations are generally a safer bet. But the last few weeks have been particularly full of TV programmes that answer the ubiquitous question, “What new thing can we make a show about?” with “OK, does it have to be a new new thing…?” Poldark, Outlander, The Casual Vacancy, The Musketeers and The 100 are based on books; In and Out of the Kitchen and Nurse are adapted from Radio 4 shows; Arthur and George and Coalition are based on real-life events… You get the idea.

So I was planning to say that, in principle, I don’t have a problem with adaptations, but actually that’s not strictly the case; although there are some brilliant examples that I love, there are also many inherent aspects that make me a little bit sceptical about adaptations as a group.

Obviously, one of the biggest problems is making a narrative designed for one medium work in another. For one thing, how do you deal with the pacing? For a book-to-TV adaptation, say, how many hours of film should each chapter/book/series get? Understandably, detective stories tend to follow the rule ‘One mystery, one episode’ (see e.g. Inspector Morse or Miss Marple), although Midsomer Murders goes for stretching each book over two episodes. Other dramas take it more slowly: a single book might get three episodes (The Casual Vacancy), or an entire series (Outlander, Game of Thrones). Poldark, interestingly, seems to have bucked this trend. I haven’t read the books (by Winston Graham, about a Cornish mine owner in the late 18th century), but I gather from swimming about in the depths of the Internet that the series is rushing through them apace. This could explain why it feels as though everything is happening at once: in the first three episodes we’ve had one war, two weddings (one between two people who’d never met in Episode 1), two pregnancies (that is, the whole nine months with a birth at the end), one near-fatal duel, one near-fatal stroke and one month-long cooking injury healed in a few seconds. In a way it’s impressive that they’ve managed to squeeze so much in there and not make it completely insane, but at the same time it does sort of detract from the genius of television (as opposed to film), which is that things can develop over time. The ratio of Poldark to everyone else is also on the high side. While there are obvious advantages to this (*cough*AidanTurner*cough*), it means that we don’t always get a lot of development of the other characters, some of whom really deserve it (e.g. young urchin-cum-goddess Demelza, whose awful curtsies are some of the best things ever to happen on TV).

Of course, you can avoid this tricky time-management issue by picking a source text that already exists at the speed you want, such as, ooh, I don’t know, adapting a half-hour radio comedy into a half-hour television comedy…? Examples are numerous, but I’ve recently been watching In and Out of the Kitchen (which I was familiar with as a radio show) and Nurse (which I was not). Pacing-wise, they’re golden; but there are other dangers and pitfalls in adapting between two media forms that seem outwardly similar. A striking one is the fact that all of a sudden you can see the characters, which seems like an obvious thing to say, but which has a slightly odd effect on Nurse, in particular. Nurse is described as a comedy drama, and revolves around a community mental health nurse (played by Esther Coles) who goes to visit various different patients, most of whom are played by Paul Whitehouse. On the radio, I imagine this was genius: he’s a splendid and convincing impersonator of human voices. But when you can actually see the characters, it’s rather more obvious that they’re all him, and, for me, the self-indulgence of this detracts somewhat from taking the programme seriously. In fact – laying my cards on the table – I’m constantly reminded of the Aviva adverts where Whitehouse plays a weird range of different OTT (and frequently camp) characters who’ve nonetheless all got a great deal on their car insurance!!!!! Nurse has received positive reviews from various trustworthy sources, including the Independent, the Radio Times  and Richard Osman on Twitter, but I’m just not feeling it: it’s like they took a successful radio programme and plopped it into TV without really asking how they could make it a new and interesting show.

As a counterpoint to this, I’d like to present In and Out of the Kitchen, also a half-hour Radio 4 comedy that’s recently come over all televisual. Now IAOOTK (hmm, not a great acronym – let’s go with Kitchen instead) has not been quite so positively received as Nurse, mainly because, in the words of my favourite TV Editor Alison Graham, “the alchemy of some shows just works better on radio”. Basically, the premise of the radio programme is that Damien Trench, a cookery writer, narrates his day-to-day life, with other characters coming in and providing dialogue when relevant. Clearly this is a non-starter for TV, where voiceover is insufficient; but I think we have to give the programme makers credit for realising this, and for approaching the TV version in a different way. The scenes with other actors now take the forefront, while the narration is replaced by the occasional piece-to-camera (admittedly a tad disconcerting when it first happens) and snippets of scenes that are essentially Damien hosting a cooking show, albeit one where there’s no audience. Personally, I think the cooking scenes are quite a clever mockery of the melodrama of real cookery programmes, and I also think the characters are more rounded in the TV version. So there: transfer to TV successful.

Another positive of Kitchen is that the characters from the radio show are maintained, but the plots are fairly loosely gathered from various series, with a certain disregard for when and where they fit into the overall narrative. The reason I call this a positive is that my other big quibble with adaptations, assuming you’ve read/watched/heard/played/experienced the source material, is that you generally know what’s going to happen in the end. Now friends have put forward the argument that, actually, having an idea of where things are going is a positive thing, since it allows you to judge whether they’re getting there in a convincing fashion. But that’s not at all the attitude I take. I like to pretend TV is real (while I’m watching it, that is; I would definitely never think about TV characters as real people outside the TV-watching moment, that would be insane, what do you take me for, some kind of crazy fangirl?). So I like the element of surprise, and excitement, and ‘Ooh, where is this going next?’ – which I didn’t get in, say, The Casual Vacancy, because I’d read the book. I knew who was going to sleep with whom. I knew who was going to win the council seat left tragically empty by the death of one of the few nice people in the entire town. I knew who was going to behave like an ass-hat (answer: pretty much everyone). Now I do concede that this isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of storytelling, and Casual Vacancy had many other things to recommend it. The overall story is obviously compelling, hence it being adapted in the first place; and the acting was generally excellent, in particular Abigail Lawrie (troubled teenager and unofficial foster mother Krystal) and Julia McKenzie, whose unbearably cute little face seriously belied the venom and nastiness spewing forth from her character. But it would’ve been nice to be surprised by the plot twists along the way.

I should say at this point that I’m probably being a bit unfair in picking out all the bits that didn’t work with the above adaptations. For the record, I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy (and In and Out of the Kitchen), and Poldark, while not my favourite show ever, rolls along quite nicely. But what I’m trying to get at is: adaptations are tricky blighters. Yes, you’ve got a narrative that definitely works and a ready-made fanbase, but you also have to tread several fine lines between faithfulness and freedom, old and new, surprise and disappointment. Overall, I think, I like a loose adaptation. Although they run the risk of infuriating the die-hard fans (which in many cases includes me), some well-aimed changes to the source material can freshen a show up and introduce some much-needed elements of surprise. They had a go at this in Casual Vacancy, when it was announced in advance that the ending had been changed because the book’s original dénouement was deemed “too grim”. I had no quibble with that: the ending of the book was indeed bleak and miserable, and I got quite excited at the prospect of something a bit more uplifting (and, of course, surprising) happening instead. In the event, I was less put out by the fact that they changed the ending and more concerned about how they changed it. Without wanting to spoil it too much, only one person died, instead of the two who died in the book, and a different character had a final redeeming moment. So, um, not that different, then, and still pretty death-y.

Other shows have been more daring in switching things up: Games of Thrones, for example, has recently departed completely from the books, largely because the written series can’t keep up with the TV one. I’m hoping that Outlander (released on Amazon Prime today) goes down this route too. Having read and enjoyed the first book (summary: WW2 nurse goes back in time to Jacobite Scotland and gets mixed up in clan warfare; also sex), there were a few strands that could do with being subjected to the Tom Bombadil Effect, and a few other events and bits of characterisation that could definitely be tightened up for the television series. In particular, some of the episode descriptions seem to suggest that Frank – the main character’s husband who gets left behind in 1945 – gets a bit more of a look-in in the show than he did in the book, and if that’s the case I’ll be extremely pleased. That kind of judicious adaptation strategy, combined with some nice Highland scenery (and probably some more instances of young-rustic-yet-masterful-hero-with-six-pack-displays-anachronistic-penchant-for-taking-his-shirt-off, such as have proved so popular in Poldark) could make Outlander the adaptation of the decade. Let’s go, guys. We can do it. Adapt and prosper.


(Note: If anyone is seeking to adapt this blog or my life story for television, the fee will be £10,000 in gold bullion, the secret recipe for Joe’s Ice Cream and a lifetime’s subscription to all current and future television-streaming services.)


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