The art of the adaptation
Adaptations have long been the bread-and-butter of scriptwriters, with a diverse array of authors, from Dickens to Tolkien, Shakespeare to Christie, having had their works grace the small and silver screen. It is easy to understand why producers are drawn to these existing stories rather than original scripts: they have proved popular with audiences time and time again.
Yet with popularity comes a problem – with so many versions of the same story being produced, scriptwriters and directors often feel that they have to innovate, to bring something fresh to the table. This leads to writers not just adapting the book but re-interpreting it; they play around with the story to see whether they can distil new meaning and new direction, be it comedic, tragic or action-based.
This can have dire consequences; without wishing to say that all modern adaptations are bad, it seems that for every delicious morsel of television drama there are four rotten tomatoes.Take the Treasure Island mini-series, adapted from a story most people are familiar with. Sky’s version of Treasure Island, for me at least, was unrecognisable. Squire Trelawny had changed into a man driven by greed, becoming no better than the pirates he was fighting, and Dr Livesey was portrayed as a coward rather than the brave and noble man of the book.
Existing source material can be problematic – whilst these character traits would lead to a very interesting drama usually, such changes will only be noteworthy for negative impact – it is not the Treasure Island being conveyed. To ignore how the characters are written is irritating to those who know the book but also unfair to those who don’t, for they are led to believe that what is on the screen is the same as the book.
In contrast there is the BBC’s Sherlock; hailed as a brilliant piece of television drama, with some even going so far as to say that this series alone justifies the license fee.
I would agree that it is fantastic: suspenseful, witty, and entertaining – it manages to capture the heart of Conan Doyle’s stories whilst still bringing them into the present.
Certainly the writers have not followed the stories word for word, but they have remained fundamentally loyal to the characters, for there lay Conan Doyle’s genius; one may change the story, but keep the characters the same and it will still be Sherlock Homes.
I suppose some people would say that you should not expect what appears on television to be the same as the book, that we should treat the two mediums as completely separate. But I will always feel that if one is going to adapt a book, then the result should be instantly recognisable as the story it claims to be.
Photograph: BBC Pictures