This week saw my first foray into the world of adaptation. As part of their ‘What the Dickens!?’ project, London-based KDC Theatre are celebrating Dickens’ 200th anniversary by asking writers to adapt his ghost stories into plays.
The story allocated to me was a short and (no offence to the great man) somewhat superficial one called ‘The Lawyer and the Ghost’, in which a barrister is visited in chambers by a now deceased former occupant who is determined to haunt the place where he has been most miserable. The lawyer, being a pragmatic sort of chap, tells him this is daft and that he ought to haunt somewhere happy. The ghost realises his mistake, and potters off, never to be see again. And that’s that.
So, quite a straight-forward brief. Two characters, a setting, bit of existing dialogue—make it into a play. Easy peasy, yes?
Yes and no. It all depends on the approach to adaptation. First of all, I took a scientific approach. I considered what the key turning points in the story were, went reversal-hunting, and considered the different voices of my two protagonists. What were the lynch pins of the story, and how would that best translate in dramatic terms?
Good stuff. But the interesting feature of this particular brief was that I had been asked to make more of a point to the story than Dickens had, and also that I didn’t have to set it in the Victorian era. So suddenly I had freedom and licence to go where I pleased with it.
But only up to a point. In order for something to be an adaptation, as opposed to a re-working of, or ‘inspired by’, it has to maintain the integrity of the original piece. In the classic Andrew Davies adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, his great achievement was to maintain the integrity of the novel, but also translate it to an emotionally charged and entertaining television drama, that the nation wanted to watch week after week.
Consider some less straight-forward adaptations, however. Brian Friel has chosen to do a ‘new version’ of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, currently on at the Old Vic. Some would query why a play as great or as subtle as the original is in need of a new version, or how a contemporary playwright could make his own distinctive mark on it. Friel has kept the core shape, setting and structure of the Ibsen original, but embellished it with extra character detail and some more modern language. The original is still very much there, but Friel-ised. Think, too, of the wonderful Steven Moffatt/Mark Gatiss creation that is Sherlock—the cleverness of this is that despite the brilliant modern dialogue and setting, the original grain of story is still there, artfully twisted and re-rendered, but still fully identifiable.
So the real challenge of adaptation, then, seems to be taking whatever degree of licence one is given, living up to that brief, but not getting carried away so that the original vanishes entirely. Several times in my adaptation of the Dickens piece, I nearly went into little eddies of dialogue, which would have been very amusing, but had nothing to do with an original. I sternly deleted them. And yet it was not quite a pure dramatization—the barrister became as modern as barristers are ever likely to come, the ghost became Victorian, the dialogue expanded and the story developed a moral for both the barrister and the ghost.
The end result was probably most like one of those modern houses that ‘retains many original features’ but has its own unique style. Some can be ghastly, but hopefully this one was tastefully done. Not quite Andrew Davies’ level yet, but we all have to start somewhere—the question is, in adaptation, what we end up with.
[The ‘What the Dickens!?’ project readings will take place in October. See www.kdctheatre.com for more information]