From Page to Stage

The-Wind-in-the-Willows-001When I was a drama student the phrase from page to stage would have referred to the way in which we took the text of a play and gave it life on the stage in performance.  These days, while I spend as much time at the theatre as ever I did, it is more likely to allude to the rather dubious practice of taking a novel and transferring it into dramatic form.

We’re all familiar with the cries of horror that meet the adaptation of a favourite book for the cinema screen.  I don’t think anyone in our reading group has yet got over the cinematic ending given to Peter Carey’s novel, Oscar and Lucinda.  Had I been Carey I would have taken out full page adverts in all the world’s leading newspapers denouncing the film as the travesty it was.  But increasingly, more and more novels are being rewritten for the stage with, it seems to me, not much greater success.

You’ve probably all already heard the story of my first encounter with Pride and Prejudice, but just in case you haven’t it’s a cautionary tale that bears repeating.  When I was about fifteen a dramatised version was staged at a local theatre and, as I knew the novel was due to turn up on my school syllabus, I duly went along to see it.  And, if I’m honest, I very much enjoyed the antics of Mr and Mrs Bennett and their three daughters, Jane , Elizabeth and Lydia. Imagine my shock then when, six months later, I came to read the book.  Who were these interlopers Mary and Kitty? Had no one told Jane Austen that the Bennetts only had three children?

Clearly, whoever was responsible for the dramatisation was a pragmatist and recognised that the play was much more likely to be staged if he kept the cast as small as possible, but he ruined the book for me forever.  I have never since been quite able to reconcile myself to the existence of those two additional daughters.

I do, therefore, tend to give stage adaptations of my favourite books a miss.  For example, the RSC’s Christmas show this year was a production of Russell Hoban’s wonderful, if harrowing, novel, The Mouse and his Child.  No way could I allow anything to sully my memories of that magnificent piece of writing and so, when offered a ticket, I politely passed it up.  I did, however, allow myself to be talked into going to a more local production of another favourite children’s story, The Wind in the Willows, mainly because the adaptation in this case had been done by Alan Bennett. It was a mistake.

To be fair, there is actually a very good dramatisation of the book by A A Milne, written not long after the novel was originally published.  Appearing on stage as Toad of Toad Hall, it manages to catch something of the atmosphere of the those chapters that deal with the great god Pan without actually trying to put the episodes concerned on stage. But surely Alan Bennett, one of our truly great playwrights, could do better than that?  Well, for me at least, the answer is no.  I think the problem lies in the attempt to give the story a contemporary feel through the dialogue.  It leaves the work sitting uneasily somewhere between its Edwardian origins and the twenty-first century and as a result it slowly sinks into the river that lies at its heart.  Certainly, most of the children with whom I saw it were unconvinced which, from my point of view, is a tragedy.  I want every child’s early experiences of theatre to be a triumph.

So, it’s clear, I’m not a fan of stage adaptations of prose fiction.  Can anyone then explain to me then, just why I find myself with a ticket for tomorrow afternoon’s matinée performance of the dramatised version of Boris Godunov? Perhaps words like ‘glutton’ and ‘punishment’ come floating into mind?

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10 thoughts on “From Page to Stage

  1. I haven’t seen the new film, “Anna Karenina.” I love the book dearly, have read it again and again, and should be a candidate for a fan, but however good Keira may be as Anna, she won’t be remotely like the Anna of the novel.

    I felt this way about Pride and Prejudice a few years ago, too. I actually walked out on it. Keira, Donald Sutherland, none of them were Austenish!

    So I’m not much on the page to the stage.

    1. Oh, I’m definitely avoiding Anna Karenina, Kat. I can see that as a complete disaster waiting to happen. And as for the film of Pride and Prejudice! One of our major film critics always refers to the lady in question as Ikea Knightly. I suppose the part she really ought to play is Emma.

  2. I thought for certain you were going to say the Wind in the Willows production ended up being fabulous. Hopefully you’ll be able to say it about Boris Godunov!

  3. I had a traumatizing experience when I was a child with the TV version of the Little House on the Prairie books. I didn’t know the word “travesty” at the time, but that’s exactly what they were. From that point, I started taking a very dim view of TV & film adaptations of the books I really love, and I think that would apply to stage productions as well, which I have less chance to see, unfortunately.

    1. I think part of the problem, Lisa, is that there simply isn’t the time to do a book justice in any other medium. When the BBC used to dramatise books over sometimes as many as 26 episodes then it worked. 90 minutes doesn’t have the same scope!

  4. I try to avoid all adaptations – they always disappoint. I suppose there’s the off chance that one might be ok – which is why I have occasionally watched one. ‘Atonement’ wasn’t bad – but it would have been much better with Keira Knightly (so wooden) and if they hadn’t changed the ending.

    1. Changing the ending seems to be one of the great temptations, Margaret. I suspect that films demand the sort of uncomplicated, happy ending that books so often don’t provide.

  5. Adaptations for stage and screen always invite comparisons, but I try to think of them as different things, inspired by the original novel rather than slavishly following it always. It meant I could enjoy both the book and the film of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen for instance, although the film totally changed the ending. The time constraints of a film etc often mean that sub-plots need to be cut, characters combined or cut etc to keep the main story as the main thing.

    That said, I enjoyed Alan Bennett’s WitW enough to see it twice (at the NT/Olivier) with two different all-star casts. The Olivier’s moving stage being used to great advantage. I’ve heard good things about the Anna Karenina film too, so am actually looking forward to getting the DVD of that!

    1. Maybe the bigger stage made a difference, Gaskella. The Rep is closed for the moment and they are using a local amateur theatre. I wish I could make the leap between books and adaptation and see them as different entities but somehow I can’t do that. I shall have to practise.

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