To Kill a Mockingbird, London. Picture credit: Gielgud Theatre
Artillery Row

Do we really need so many stage adaptations of novels?

There’s much that can go wrong when the drama of a book is transferred to the stage

Aaron Sorkin’s new version of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird has recently opened in London after its immense success on Broadway. While it has received decent reviews in Britain, I cannot help wishing that the production had managed to bring its original Atticus Finch, the great Jeff Daniels — who was nominated for a Tony for the role — over the Atlantic. Instead, Rafe Spall has taken the role. 

Although Spall is a distinguished comic actor, he instinctively lacks the necessary gravitas to be able to deliver lines of Atticus’ such as “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He is unlikely to efface memories of an Oscar-winning Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation, or to make those who love the book think of his “modern, slightly furry wash…[complete with] designer stubble”, when they read it again. 

 The musical genre has seen the greatest desecrations of classic novels

Yet leaving aside jibes at Spall’s appearance, I don’t know whether the book needed to be adapted for the stage at all. Susannah Clapp, the Observer’s eminent theatre critic, called the new production “a thin, often awkward evening…more of an argument than an experience” and suggested that Sorkin’s desire to turn the novel’s complex, often contradictory moral universe into a more simplistic courtroom drama has failed to give the story greater clarity. In our post-Black Lives Matter era, of course it seems all-important to bring out the injustices and cruelties done to the black character Tom Robinson, unjustly accused of raping a white woman. However, most people who read Lee’s original novel were able to understand that that was her intention sixty years ago. It does not take a Sorkin — admittedly, a fine writer in his own right — to offer further, unnecessary, clarity about exactly why racism in America in the Great Depression was wrong. 

Many great works of literature have been adapted for the stage, either as straight plays or as musicals. Some have worked superbly; the long-running version of The Woman in Black continues to terrify audiences in the West End  just as effectively as the novel ever did, and recent productions of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – the latter having been adapted by Jack Thorne and Mark Gatiss, amongst others – have been acclaimed for the ways in which they have managed to combine much-loved stories with the theatrical relish that great playwrights, directors and actors can bring to a project. And when it comes to musicals, few would argue that the likes of Matilda, Oliver! or Les Miserables have not earned their place in audiences’ affections, regardless of how freely inspired by the original texts the songwriters have been. 

It is also, alas, the musical genre that has seen the greatest desecrations of classic novels. Whether we are talking about the disastrous Trevor Nunn-directed version of Gone with the Wind, which led the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh to chortle “Connoisseurs of big, bad musicals must rush to catch Gone With the Wind in case it’s quickly blown away on gales of ridicule”, or the bizarrely misconceived attempt to adapt the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy into a single musical (“A show that combines tiresome grandiosity with mind-rotting mediocrity… its run, I fear, will be nasty, brutish and short”: Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph), there is a tendency for ambitious, or simply greedy producers, to assemble thin scripts, tuneless songs and warbling thespians, throw an insufficient amount of money and rehearsal time at the project, and voila! Bob est ton oncle. Except, of course, he usually isn’t, and producers can lose rather more than their shirts on these big-budget failures. Lord of the Rings is said to have incurred a £25 million loss for its investors. 

It is essentially impossible to capture the scale of a novel on stage

Yet even in the less pricey forum of conventional theatre, where the only songs sung are, hopefully, the jubilant ones at the first night party, it remains unclear as to why there is such consistent demand for novels to be adapted for the stage. For every adaptation that manages to bring something new and thrilling to a much-loved text, such as Robert Icke’s multimedia version of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Nunn and John Caird’s legendary eight and a half-hour staging of Nicholas Nickleby, adapted by David Edgar using Brechtian techniques, there are many others than are politely undistinguished in their middlebrow aims and commensurately modest artistic achievements. A Passage to India, Brideshead Revisited, Jane Eyre, innumerable Pride and Prejudices…they creep into theatres to lure unadventurous audiences of a certain age in, who wish to spend a Saturday matinee enjoying a retelling of a story that they already know, and do so without any particular distinction.

Unlike television or film, it is essentially impossible to capture the scale of a novel on stage, although Nunn, and a few others, have certainly tried. Instead, great dramatists do not attempt to recreate the book, but to find their own, inimitable spin on the material. The National’s recent adaptation of Wuthering Heights, written by Emma Rice, was much praised for its decision to move away from the novel’s overwrought drama and replace it with camply theatrical humour. One can only imagine what Emily Bronte would have made of Isabella Linton archly declaring that “Sometimes I like to slide down the bannister because it tickles my tuppence.” 

Perhaps she would have complained and railed and shouted, as authors have done over the centuries at those who have desecrated their work. Or, alternatively, she might have admired Rice’s daring, and acknowledged that an adaptation should never attempt to replace the original, but to complement it. It may be that Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is as much of a success in London as it was on Broadway, and then it becomes the standard theatrical version of the novel. But I can never imagine a world in which the exploits of Atticus, Scout, Jem and the rest are viewed principally as a theatrical, rather than literary, endeavour. Nor should they be, even as we commend the courage of those who try to transplant the stories between formats. As Atticus himself might have said, of Sorkin’s endeavour, “It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” The writer might have been well advised to remember the lawyer’s words, too: “You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

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