Posts Tagged ‘television’

Books on the BBC

February 21, 2011

‘Oh my god, you’ve got to use that in your blog,’ a friend said to me on Saturday night, once I’d told her the extraordinary and rather shocking thing that had happened to me in the bookshop a few hours earlier.

Sadly, despite racking my brains, I’ve been unable to find a literary parallel to being propositioned for a foursome by someone who I thought might have been a thief.

So I am left with something slightly less intriguing to write about. ‘Books on the BBC’.

Now before you groan, I have to say that, as a rather bookish young woman, who’s always keep to espouse the brilliance of books over other media, such as television, for instance, I feel really pretty excited about this (albeit rather unimaginatively titled) BBC initiative.

‘We are delighted to champion the power of books,’ they say in their press release. Yessssss, I hiss to myself. Is this victory at last? Is television (and radio) finally admitting defeat to the ongoing glory of the printed page?

Trying to put aside my gloating, I decided to see what literary delights BBC iPlayer has to offer.

First, let it be said, that there are lots more bookish television programmes to come from the BBC. From the (rather unlikely) Anne Robinson to the (rather obvious) Stephen Fry, via Richard E Grant and Adam Nicholson, our screens are going to play host to all sorts of bookish activities. Not to mention the inevitable, gloriously cheesy, costume dramas.

But I ended up watching two documentaries.

The first was an episode of the much-hyped Faulks on Fiction. Ironically, there is a book that goes with this TV series. The reviews of the book have been quite a chuckle. Faulks takes an incredibly unfashionable, unacademic approach to literature. Rather than thinking about biographical or theoretical interpretations of novels, he looks at individual characters and treats them as real people. It’s the first thing one is told not to do at university. Or even, come to think of it, at GCSE. Never forget the author, I was told again and again. This person – Robinson Crusoe or Becky Sharp, or whoever it is that you feel an affinity with in the book – is not really a person, it’s a character, constructed by the author. Rather than thinking – oh, I like this about this person – one is supposed to think: Why the author has chosen to put that trait into the character. What is achieved? What does it mean? How is it balanced or echoed by a trait in another character? How does it reflect upon contemporary society? How would a post-structuralist read it? And blah blah blah …

So turning round and saying, essentially, ‘Sod that, I want to talk about all my favourite heroes,’ to the buttoned-up academics, is a bit of a coup.

And good for Sebastian Faulks! I bet his publishers were somewhat peeved that rather than putting the effort into writing yet another bestselling novel, he’s put all this time into a volume of literary criticism. Sales will be good – his name is such a recognised brand that anything by him will sell, and he has a TV series as backup – but sales won’t be nearly as good as they were for A Week in December or Birdsong or any other novel by him.

But as I watched the programme, I realised the first – and almost insurmountable – problem with a television programme about books: What will make up the visual content?

When reading a novel, all you see are the words on the page. (Plus, of course, the brilliantly-imagined world that the author has created, existing for the moment in your mind’s eye.) But just showing pages of books on television is of limited appeal. Yes there are several interviews with today’s literati, such as Martin Amis and Robert Harris, but what about the rest of the time? What can serve as a backdrop while Sebastian Faulks witters on about his hero-of-choice?

The BBC appears to have decided to use a setting that reflects the content of the book. A discussion of Robinson Crusoe, for instance, sees Faulks clambering, pink-shirted, red-faced, over a desert island. Tom Jones is discussed from a leafy English woodland, and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp is given the context of a cab-journey through Soho. All this is interspersed with clips from screen adaptations, with music to provide an atmosphere of excitement or adventure. Yes, it is unspeakably naf. The all-time low is Faulk’s discussion of 1984’s Winston Smith while loitering around post-war social housing.

But how can one possibly get around this problem? Books are written to be read. Discussions of them may work the radio, but on screen the need for images can surely only interfere with the reader/viewer’s own imagination, their own thoughts about the books?

The other documentary I watched managed to side-step this problem with slightly more panache. As Henry Hitchings’s The Birth of the British Novel got underway, I could almost hear the sigh of relief echo down from ivory towers. Hitchings looks at eighteenth-century literature as the beginning of the novel. He picks out a few of the most seminal works (not characters) and describes how the novel comes into being, how it changes, and what authors are trying to do with this exciting new form of writing.

Yes there are the same talking heads, and similar slightly tiresome shots of the presenter wandering through London. But rather than resorting to screen adaptations, old illustrations from the books and contemporary portraits of the authors fill the screen. With Fielding, we get a whole aside on Hogarth and the Foundling Museum – much more enlightening than the sword fights and heaving bosoms of the screen adaptation excerpted on Faulks on Fiction.

Perhaps it was lack of budget that prevented Henry Hitchings from jetting off to a desert island for his discussion of Robinson Crusoe, but I was much more fascinated to see a very old etching of Crusoe’s animal-skin ‘great cap for my head with the hair on the outside to shoot of the rain’, and even his umbrella!

The camera is quieter, less flash, allowing the viewer to listen to the readings from the novels, to take in the detail of the illustration, to ponder the strange luminous gleam of Sterne’s forehead in Reynolds’s portrait, for instance. Although, this thoughtfulness is somewhat unbalanced by the numerous snappy street shots of London, and all its tenuous links, such as close-ups of flat whites while talking about eighteenth-century London’s coffee-house culture.

It does seem a bit peculiar that in the five or so books discussed in each of these documentaries, two are the same. It invites comparison. And while I felt slightly irritated in moments of each of them, I felt that Henry Hitchings was the overall winner. Faulks on Fiction is so jazzed up, so daring, so different in its approach, that I felt it lost the power of the novel on the way. Books speak for themselves. They don’t need to be ventriloquised by adaptations, and gratuitous desert island shots. I even found it slightly patronising, as though I were being ushered into an appreciation of a novel but through a side-door that only showed a narrow, dumbed-down version. Henry Hitchings’s discussion of each novel may be similarly brief, but by bringing in context, ideas, the author’s background, he makes the novels accessible while keeping their integrity intact.

But really with each programme, I came away thinking it was time to read and reread some of those classics. I want to remind myself of the painstakingly-detailed island life in Robinson Crusoe, and I want to finally get round to reading Tom Jones. Even Faulks on Fiction made me joyfully reminisce about reading Vanity Fair and think that perhaps it’s time to allow myself another squizz at it. Both programmes whet my appetite for literature and, I suppose, that’s really the point.

Books on film

November 22, 2010

I have never understood why someone would watch the film of a book and then buy the book.

Any Human Heart jumped up into Amazon’s Top 100 books today, after the first part of the TV adaptation screened last night. The Guardian’s TV reviewer was just one of many who was so impressed with the film that he instantly went online to order the book.

The book is, by all accounts, absolutely superb. It’s been on my list of things to get round to reading, ever since I started working in the bookshop and noticed that several copies were piled up on the favourites table. Whenever I talk to colleagues about their best ever books, Any Human Heart is almost always up there.

I should have just bought a copy and read it straight away, but instead I read Ordinary Thunderstorms, by the same author, which had just come out. And I found it, well, somewhat ordinary. I definitely wasn’t in the mood to read another William Boyd afterwards, even if Any Human Heart is, apparently, a different, far superior, kettle of fish.

If only I had read it back then, instead of the wretched Thunderstorms book, I wouldn’t be in the quandary that I’m in today about the TV adaptation. You see, as I mentioned, I don’t understand the whole watching the film and then buying the book phenomenon. If I were to watch the film of Any Human Heart, I don’t think I’d ever get round to reading the book.

Unlike the Guardian reviewer and the other thousands of people who leapt on to Amazon to order their copy this morning, I would be holding out, waiting for the series to finish rather than reading the book as well. If the story is being told in one particular medium (on screen), then why look for the same story in another medium (on the page) too? It’s the same story, more-or-less, and it’s not especially fun playing spot the difference between the two different versions.

I don’t mind doing it the other way round. If I’ve read the book, then I’m perfectly happy to watch the film. Indeed, I  tend to try and hunt down the film, once I’ve read a particularly good book, keen to see how a director, screenwriter, or actor has interpreted it, how their ideas might differ from mine. I was positively peeved on discovering that the film of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which is apparently every bit as good as the absolutely marvellous book, is almost impossible to get hold of on DVD. (See this post for more on the book.)

The thing is, when reading a book, although the words enter one’s head through one’s eyes, it is the mind’s eye which is really active, imagining the described events, characters, situations. In my head, they may not have the sharp, high-definition outlines that they would be given on screen, but they’re still there.

Right now, I’m reading Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, and while I’m not precisely certain of exactly what Mr Biswas looks like, I can definitely picture the Tulsi store, with its flaking, faded signs on the walls, and his little shop in the Chase, with its mud walls, its counter, the old tins up on the top shelf. I can imagine him on his bicycle with his daughter, precariously peddling along the track in the dark, when he is stopped by a policeman. If a novel is good, if it is well-told, then I can picture it.

Of course, films work differently. The film pictures everything for you. And so your interpretation of the story is coloured not just by the author, but by the director and the actors too. It is no longer your own imagination that has free reign with what is written, but all these other people are busy telling you exactly how to see everything.

How tragic, for instance, to equate Harry Potter with drippy Daniel Radcliffe! How sad to think of the brilliantly geeky Hermione as home counties posh kid Emma Watson! Acting skills aside, they spend the latest film looking like they’re modelling Gap’s 1996 collection. J.K.’s original creations were so much cooler, so much more interesting, so much more different, so much more real than the film’s insipid characters.

Having said that, I loved the latest Harry Potter film. I don’t really mind about Daniel and Emma because I read the books first, so my own versions of Harry and Hermione can stand tall alongside the film equivalents. Thank god I hadn’t seen the film first and then went through the ordeal of spending 600 pages hearing Daniel Radcliffe’s voice every time Harry Potter speaks, perpetually imagining him in Harry Potter’s wizarding shoes.

Dare I even whisper it, but, despite my reservations about the lead actors, I think the Harry Potter film is better than the book. All the endless guff about the Weasley wedding preparations is thankfully condensed into a marquee being erected by co-ordinated flicks of wands. The hundreds of dreary pages devoted to Harry, Hermione and Ron hiding out in a tent in the middle of nowhere is transformed into stunning views of British countryside, and, admittedly, a rather grim cheesy dance between the two Hs, in the style of a dodgy uncle dancing with a five-year-old at a wedding. But it is worth putting up with a few rather more flawed characters in order to whizz through the boring bits of the book in a few minutes instead of painfully protracted hours.

Perhaps it was because my imagination went into overdrive while contemplating J.K.’s wonderful wizarding world, that when I was reading the books I used to have incredible Harry Potter dreams. Rather than the usual tedious anxiety ones about being late for something, or not being able to find my clothes, or being stung by wasps, or teeth falling out, my dreamscape suddenly had epic proportions. I was saving the world from evil. And I could do really brilliant magic.

It was a relief and delight that after seeing the film the other day, I once again had some first class Harry Potter dreams. And the dreams were blissfully free of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and the rest of the film gang. Otherwise they might have been a rather nasty surprise. Instead I went to work the following day feeling pleased, quite satisfied that I’d just saved the world.

I’m not sure what Any Human Heart dreams would be like. But I shall endeavour to resist the billboards, supplements and endless reviews of the TV series, and read the book first. Otherwise, without my own images of William Boyd’s story, I might find Jim Broadbent frowning at me in my sleep, and I’m not sure that would be entirely pleasant.