You know when you imagine what someone you’ve never seen looks like and then you meet them – and once you know what they actually look like, you can’t remember what you had imagined? It’s a bit like that with the dramatisation of novels.
On Sunday, I decided not to watch the so-called ‘original’ BBC TV drama Birdsong, based on Sebastian Faulks’ book. It was a book that I’d very much enjoyed reading and from which I learned a lot about the First World War.
I didn’t watch the television adaptation because I didn’t want the places and characters that my imagination had conjured for me to be overlaid by memories of the screen version. I didn’t want it ‘spoilt’, in other words.
I know some people will feel that seeing a TV version would add to their enjoyment of a book but I find it hard to see how, if it’s something you’ve really enjoyed reading. As a reader you have such an intimate experience of the words on the page and your mind automatically goes off and dramatises what you are reading. A screen adaptation, on the other hand, does that for you and shows you how people look and where they live. When it’s done well, it can be marvellous but done badly it can damage something you loved forever.
A dramatisation also decides for you what will be emphasised. I haven’t read any critical reviews but from Twitter (and perhaps it says a lot about people who would tweet while watching a drama), it appeared that viewers thought Birdsong (or Birdsnog, as someone called it) was mainly about a young chap lusting after a girl. No-one seemed to be commenting on the experiences of young, frightened soldiers far from home or about the gruelling work of the men digging tunnels beneath the enemy trenches. Yet those are my memories of the book. I recall one very evocative sex scene but mainly as an isolated event in a much larger tale of loneliness, hardship and loss.
In a completely different context, I came across a feature about the home of blogger Alicia Paulson today. It was really interesting to see what her house is actually like from photographs that show much more than the closely cropped details that she usually uses in her posts. There was also a picture of her with her husband.
After seeing them, I found it really difficult to re-imagine the picture of Alicia that I had before. Her house was in many ways unlike what I expected and, of course, she looks totally different from what I had imagined. That’s not a value judgement – I’m not saying either is better or worse – they’re just undeniably different from what I’d imagined.
It made me wonder about dramatisations and my views on them. The house feature simply showed a different perspective; one that I felt slightly resistant to because I had become very comfortable with the ‘imaginary’ Alicia from her blog. Of course, unlike characters in a novel, there is a real Alicia. But it did make me feel I should be more open to screen adaptations than I sometimes am. They are, after all, just different perspectives on the same story – one that is imagined in the first place.
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