Monday, 4 April 2011

Adaptation blues

A novel should be far better off being adapted to the small screen rather than the big. Often novels are too long and complex to be converted into feature films. A mere 90-120 minutes is simply not long enough to capture the plot twists, the range of characters and the subtleties of a novel. And that is the case as much for Anna Karenina as it is, I believe, for Harry Potter. Fun though the Warner Bros films are, Rowling's books are far more satisfying (their numerous flaws included).

The BBC are having one of their periodic splurges on literary fiction. We've just had the floaty, moody and rather brutal Women in Love, and now we are about to get Michel Faber's Crimson Petal and the White.

These are different beasts of course. The former has been part of the 'canon' for decades. A classic novel. The latter is more recent: a modern novel set in Victorian times which deals with the sexual hypocrisy of the age.

Petal, I must admit, has been on the 'must get round to' pile for too many years now. I really must get round to it, and this adaptation will probably drive me to it. This is TV as bossy bully: This is a Great Novel, TV is telling us, You Must Read! And yes I will, if for no other reason than to enjoy the experience before I watch the BBC version - there's always the risk it will be so bad that it might ruin the book forever.

Women In Love I read two decades ago when I was a student. I'm not sure what to make of DH Lawrence now. I never loved his prose: his style was a turn off. So many of the things he would have fought for - sexual equality, an openness about sex - have become mainstream. Social classes are more fluid than they were in the Edwardian era too: we've had the rise of the working class intellectual. Of course if Jamie's Dream School is anything to go by, we might be having the fall of it too. But is Women In Love an important book for now, or an exercise in going over what we learned at school? Television does reading nostalgia if you like?

Relevance is what really counts with any adaptation of this sort. Why pluck Lawrence off the shelf when there are other writers around now addressing current issues better? Is Women In Love a relevant drama or is it just an exercise in branding: DH Lawrence = Intelligent Drama With A Lot Of Sex. And there's nothing the chattering classes like more than a lot of intellectual sex.

Which brings us back to Petal and its world of brothels and mistresses. Think I'd better set the V+ and get reading...

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