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“A good story is a good story!” – Why adapting a book can be for the best

Bringing Literature to Life explored the issues inherent in adapting literature for stage and screen

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Have you been to see any films in the cinema recently? Or watched one of the BBC’s mini-series? The chances are pretty likely that if you have, you watched a story that originated as a book. This year alone, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Hunger Games and Anna Karenina, are all adaptations of books, and have been devoured by cinema-goers. This, along with the popularity of Parade’s End and The Paradise on the BBC, and it’s clear that a book adaptation has pulling power. Bringing Literature to Life, part of the Manchester Literature Festival, was therefore a pertinent event. Hearing from the people who transfer the story from the pages to the screen, stage or airwaves was fascinating.

The panel consisted of Jane Rogers, whose expertise is in adapting texts for radio and television, Jeremy Dyson, a comic writer famous for The League of Gentlemen, who recently adapted Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected for stage, and, headlining the list, was Nick Stafford, whose stage adaption of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse has won him a Tony award.

As the discussion kicked off it was immediately clear that these people were not mere copycats, that adapting a story to fit an entirely different media requires skill. As a bookworm, I can’t deny the wave of horror I feel every time I see an advert for a new film adaption of one of my favourite novels; the fear that it will have been altered beyond recognition and special secret of the work inevitably lost in the process. Listening to the panel, though, was comforting: Jeremy Dyson spoke of the “instinctive response” to a novel needed to make a good adaption of the original, a sentiment with which the other panellists strongly agreed. Alterations to the story are sometimes necessary for budgetary constraints, but also simply to make the theatre production, TV show or film, work. “There’s more room in a novel” Jane Rogers explained as she spoke of adapting one of her own novels for radio, “You have to find the action.”

So, then, are book adaptions so simply pale reflections of the novel? I asked at the Q&A at the end of the session why they adapted novels; if they loved the books they were working with, why change them? Nick Stafford responded flippantly: “Well, it’s a job.” But Jane Rogers saw herself as doing more of a service to books; she believes that adaptations make books accessible, and, having adapted the likes of Thomas Hardy, she should know. They also bring attention back to authors who may have been lost in the mists of time. For the purist book lover, the rise in film and TV adaptations may appear to undermine the literature they immortalise, but I would say not. As the chairwoman of the discussion said, “A good story, is a good story!” and it is the story that will engross people whichever medium it is told through. Adaptations may even tempt more people to crack open the book afterwards. Love them or loathe them, it seems they’re here to stay.