Saturday, February 17, 2007

Learning to adapt

Giles Foden writes in today's Guardian about the dangers of having one's fiction adapted for the screen. It's a funny business, as I've said on my other blog. As a reader I would say I don't like screen adaptations: I usually try never to see one before reading a book, yet if I watch one afterwards I'm always frustrated by the gap between the director's vision and my own. I haven't read Foden's novel The Last King of Scotland, but on this occasion I was dragged along, reluctantly, to see the film. I was bowled over - rarely has a film made such a lasting impact on me - but I know now that I'll never be able to read the book without its images and those actors in my head.

As a writer, though, it's a different story. Someone comes along and offers you a big bag of money to turn your novel into something which will make it a hell of a lot more famous than it ever was before - or in, my case, famous in a way it never was. I had had bad luck with my second novel, Body Cuts. Halfway through the editing process my editor at the small publishing house left to pursue her own novel career, and the publisher failed to tell me, or to make clear to her replacement where we were in the editing process, and as a result the book went to press without my final editing. The reason for such mix-ups suddenly became evident. Weeks before the book was due out the publisher was bought up by another, and although my book had been announced in the trade press, it failed to appear. When it was eventually published, no new announcements were made in the trade press by the new publisher, and not long after that the original publisher's fiction list was remaindered.

In the meantime, however, during the short time that book was in the bookshops, the TV director John Glenister happened to pick it up, got hooked and immediately decided that he wanted to adapt it for TV. How cool was that? How could I refuse such a chance of resurrection? My usual reservations about screen adaptations went shooting off into the ether.

In fact, in the end that adaptation didn't happen - people at the BBC had moved on, artistic and funding policies had changed - but as I had been working on the adaptation with John, I took it to a Channel 4/arts-board screenwriting scheme, and here my reservations dropped back down from the sky. My God: the changes I was expected to make!! My main male character should be a different sort of person, my female character's mother ought to die!!! Needless to say I soon dropped the whole idea, and contented myself with salvaging from this last experience insights for my satirical (and entirely fictional) story, 'The Shooting Script', which may be included in my forthcoming collection from Salt, Balancing on the Edge of the World.

We haven't yet decided which stories will go in this collection, but one which probably will is 'Power', which looks at the stresses on children of quarrelling parents through their contrasting voices (previously published in Power [Honno]), a story I adapted as a radio drama. It was the second time I had adapted my own fiction for radio: earlier I worked on my first novel, The Birth Machine. Both times I worked with the director Michael Fox and both times I was given free rein to adapt my work in ways which allowed me to stay as true to the original as I wished. I have to say that adaptation for the verbal, non-visual medium of radio is a different thing altogether: I don't feel in any way that the transformations stole the souls of the original fictions in the way screen adaptations so often seem to do.

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