A novel new project – adapting for performance



Thanks to Covid, my usual creative output of playing with other actors in freezing cold rehearsal studios has been somewhat curtailed, but my brain appears to be incapable of turning off that theatrical instict entirely. I’ve been involved with a few projects this year, which have been very rewarding and frustrating in their own ways (much like rehearsals and performances in “real life”) but there’s been one little idea burrowing its way through my mind that I’m finally getting to dedicate some time to.

I’ve never adapted a literary work before. Frankly, I’ve only ever really adapted two things properly before in my life, so this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. One was a radio edit for Much Ado (which will be available to listen to one day, I am assured), and the other was for my A Level Drama exam where we had to devise a piece based on the 1001 Arabian Nights and I basically ended up writing the whole thing. This new project though is a biggie.

For Much Ado, the first thing I did was read the script. Took a couple of hours. The issue with a novel is that they’re significantly LONGER. As it’s a book I thought I knew quite well, I figured I could blast through it, making notes as I go, but it turns out my memory of the book has been somewhat scewed by the already existing, and infamous, adaptations from the big and small screens.

With Much Ado I decided to deep dive into already existing productions, for inspiration but also to figure out some technical bits and bobs – for Much Ado the first port of call was the Ken Brannagh and Emma Thompson version, which is generally understood to be one of the best and the reason I fell in love with the play in the first place. Second, Joss Whedon’s version, which for some reason never resonated with me, and then a BBC radio adaptation with David Tennant and Samantha Spiro, followed by the David Tennant/Catherine Tate staged version (which I adore parts of and hate others…). The fun thing about this was finding the different ways adapters have cut the story to suit particuar meaning, and the way in which artistic license with the text can be used for dramatic effect.

There are so many differences – the key to a good adaptation though, I am discovering, is to make those differences seem original. This is done to varying degrees of success by different productions…

The problem with allowing yourself those bits of artistic freedom when you’re working with something so beloved is that you risk upsetting the dedicated audience. As a member of the dedicated audience to this particular work, I’ve found, during my rewatches and listenings, that I can spot the anachronisms a mile off MOST of the time. There is one particular adaptation that has only gone up in my estimation since becoming really reacquainted with the novel – not because they’ve stuck to the original rigidly or kept it word perfect, but because they’ve managed to use original diaglogue and move the plot around without it seemingly like they’ve diverged from the original at all.

This is a very long winded clue to what I’m adapting…

In fact, I have a copy of the script and so much of what I thought was direct from the book was completely new. It blew my mind a little. I am currently listening to a BBC radio adaptation that has taken a LOT of liberties with the text, inventing whole conversations and putting words into other characters’ mouths – for those unfamiliar with the text I’m sure it wouldn’t feel out of place, but for me it’s jarring, and a lesson to definitely not attempt that myself.

I do not intend to use these viewing sessions to define my own interpretation. There are things I read in the story that haven’t been captured elsewhere, or elements I don’t think are the most key that have been included, but structurally they’re really helpful.

I’m almost done with a first draft now – I’m at the horrible point of deciding what to cut, which scenes to push together to make it flow, and how to make it not be 4 hours long. The intention is to cut it to 2 hours, so there’s a lot of work to do. I’m so excited to see it come to fruition though, and I’m already in talks for a read through once it’s ready!

Header Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash