Playing Fast and Loose with the Classics

Kidnapped, with swords!

Christmas TV here has been a bit dodgy. Plenty of movies to enjoy, but very little good original TV drama, and most of what was touted as 'original' - wasn't.

This is, as ever, a personal opinion. And I'm coming at this from the point of view of somebody with my fair share of dramatisations under my belt, albeit for BBC Radio 4. These included Kidnapped, Catriona, The Bride of Lammermoor and even Ben Hur, chariot race and all, among many others. Some of them are repeated from time to time on R4 Extra, where you can catch them all over again, although I always forget to look, so the small cheque for residual payments comes as a pleasant surprise.

Dramatisation is fun, especially when you love the book you're working on, but it's also a challenge. Not something for beginners. You are not there to impose your own creative quirks on somebody else's creation.

One of the first things you have to decide is how you are going to set about translating that original into what is a completely different medium - and to do it without upsetting too many people. Scenes will have to be left out. Characters too.  But alongside the notion that you are creating a faithful realisation in a different medium is the notion that you should strive not to do too much violence to that original.

I could cite a dozen examples of excellent film and TV dramatisations, faithful to the original, but also wonderful dramas in their own right. Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility comes to mind but there are plenty more. I'd place the recent Poldark series in that category as well. I didn't watch it the first time round, and I know there are people who prefer the previous dramatisation, but I've read some of the books, and the newer dramas seem very faithful to the world Graham created.

The other form of drama that works well is where a writer takes a much loved original and uses it as inspiration for a wholly new piece of work, without ever pretending that they are doing anything different. The brilliant Bridget Jones falls into this category, as do clever, quirky, funny films such as Clueless. I've done it myself to some extent, with a novel called Bird of Passage that is a re-imagining of Wuthering Heights in the present day, while remaining a loving homage to the original.

But during winter 2019, here in the UK at least, we were treated to various dramatisations that took a much loved book and then skewed it till it was virtually unrecognisable, in some cases imposing a world view on it that would have been wholly alien to the original.

I hated all of them without exception.

Christmas Carol - why tamper with perfection? Dickens knew how to tell a damn good story if anyone did. Dracula? Why call it that? But it began much earlier with theWar of the Worlds that started off well but very quickly descended into such a tissue of incomprehensible nonsense that many of us were left feeling indignant and cheated. Sanditon was another one in which a writer indulged himself at the expense of a dead novelist. (Is this a thing over-confident middle aged male writers do? It might be so.)

I'm left wondering, don't these dramatists have an original idea in their heads? Or is it just possibly the notoriously conservative TV executives, paying the piper and calling the tune. Are they so scared of originality that they can only permit dramatists to piggyback on the classics?

After the brickbats, the bouquet.

Far and away the best TV drama of 2019 - probably of the decade - was Craig Mazin's Chernobyl. I still think about it with a combination of awe and admiration of every single thing about it: writing, production, acting. If you haven't yet watched it, seek it out. I have seen nothing like it produced here in the UK for many a long year. Maybe our systems no longer allow for such talent. But try not to binge watch it, or if you do, perhaps you should allow yourself some recovery time!









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