Thursday, 16 January 2020

That ol' "Book to Screen" thing raises its ugly (and beautiful) head again - This Week's #ReadItTorial

Oh Mrs Coulter... (sigh)

When the winter months arrive, the incumbents of ReadItDaddy Towers find themselves snuggling up on the sofa together to watch a bit of seasonal telly. There's usually something we agree we can watch together (though most of the time I find myself needing to disappear whenever stuff like "Strictly Come Dancing" comes on).

But before Christmas we were treated to the latest round of dramatisations from the BBC, adapting classic books for screen with varying degrees of success.

I've long loved "War of the Worlds" by H.G Wells - and still believe that the closest anyone's ever come to adapting it for the screen was a fantastic animated version that (unfortunately) arrived in the same year as Tom Cruise's truly awful blockbuster. Completely overshadowed, it's all but disappeared, but if you hunt around enough you'll find it on DVD.

The BBC had been trumpeting their new version for a long time, taking the story away from modern times, back to the Victorian era depicted in the original novel (hooray!) with a stellar cast (hooray!) and what looked to be a fairly decent effects budget (hooray!)

Then it arrived as a three parter. Straight away there was a problem. Initially it looked to be pretty faithful but then it started hopping around in the story's timeline, effectively jumping from the moments before the Martian invasion, to the aftermath of a world devastated by the war machines. As the episodes unfolded, this continued until the whole thing became an unwatchable mess, spending more time shoe-staring than actually dealing with the themes the book did so well to convey, that we may think we're top of the pecking order but when we're confronted by an apocalypse, we go to pieces when our technology (and capability for destroying things) fails us (kinda topical but...nah, just nah).

Hot on its coat-tails, into 2020 now and "Dracula" was also adapted by Messrs Moffat and Gatiss - upgrading the influential character, modernising him, camping him up (though - let's face it - Dracula has ALWAYS been pretty damned camp, even in the original novel) and producing another three episode drama that fired a scattergun at a beloved classic, annoying and delighting viewers in equal measure (I watched the first episode which was OK, dipped into the second which just completely slid over my eyeballs making no impact whatsoever - I bailed on the third).

YET for all these so-so adaptations, the BBC and HBO had us utterly gripped with "His Dark Materials" - Splicing together parts of Philip Pullman's first two novels in this series, playing between Lyra's escapades in Alt-Oxford and the frozen north, and a more modern-day setting for the second book.

Though there were scenes that we felt were badly handled and poorly realised (still cannot forgive 'em for essentially stuffing up one of the most important scenes in the first book, where a poor abducted urchin is separated from his Daemon and is found hugging a dead fish in a freezing hut), and a lot of criticism was levelled at the fact that the show obviously couldn't afford to budget for Daemons for every character. But the performances were stellar, with Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy acting their socks off to good effect, leaving us dangling on a cliffhanger and wanting the next series to hurry up and get here.

Elsewhere with more grown-up fare, Netflix's adaptation of "The Witcher" also boasts super-high production quality, and somehow manages to take the fairly toothy and 'not for the faint hearted' books (and for that matter a good dose of what made the games pretty special) and turn them into an amazing series. You see, it can be done - even with material that you'd swear was completely unfilmable.

Picture book wise, there was also a truly wonderful adaptation of "The Tiger Who Came to Tea" on over Christmas, perfectly honouring the memory of Judith Kerr's most well-known and celebrated book, in fact I don't think this got nearly enough love and plaudits on my timeline on Twitter. It really was wonderfully done.

Which is more than can be said for the BBC's version of "The Snail and the Whale" - For goodness sake give Magic Light something more decent to work with than stale Julia Donaldson books, PLEASE!

Adapting books isn't always easy - but sometimes, with the sheer amount of truly amazing stuff out there in kidlit (particularly in picture books) I'm left wondering why it always seems to be the 'safe' choices that make the leap from page, to script, to screen. We've said it in previous ReadItTorials and we'll say it again - there are many, many more authors out there whose works would make the perfect Christmas (or ANY time of year) movie or series. Give these folk a shot - and more importantly INVOLVE them in the project. No one wants to watch some producer / director's 'unique vision' for a story that stands up very well without any additional creative muddling.