Laura Turner On ... Adapting Novels for the StageDate: 13 November 2011
Which classic novelists are the easiest to dramatise for stage purposes?
In fact, it is more a collection of stories and anecdotes from the lives of a small group of women living in a village in the North of England during the 1840s. This meant I needed to really focus on selecting the stories that were going to be the most dramatic and work the best on stage. I firmly believe that an adaptation should be a faithful rendering of the original novel on stage – not only the story itself, but also capturing the atmosphere and ethos of the novel and its characters.
However, I hugely enjoyed the freedom that I had when adapting Cranford at Christmas recently. Because Gaskell didn't write any episodes specifically set at Christmas, I was able to use situations and stories from the original novel and then translate them into a festive setting. Cranford's characters are all deeply concerned with each other's business and what is the proper way to behave, so I knew there would be plenty of comedy to bring out in the traditions of the season, as the women struggle to make the perfect wreath, condemn the lascivious weed mistletoe and decide on the best recipe for mince pies.
Which are the hardest, and why?
In terms of the story itself, Pride and Prejudice is also tricky to adapt for the stage because it takes place over a long period of time and in many different locations. There is also a lot of writing and receiving letters in the novel which doesn't always make for the most dramatic or exciting scenes! There has to be a compromise between remaining true to Austen's work – because this is what people have come to see – and altering things to really make them work on stage and keep the audience interested. There's a lot more to think about than just copying out dialogue from the novel.
What's your criteria for cutting incidents, characters and sub-plots?
There has to be an obvious distinction between my adaptation and other people's, so I try to get a balance between my own voice and the story itself. It sounds mercenary, but as with anything you write, you still want to make your own mark. With adaptations like Pride and Prejudice, where I have made alterations to the sequence of the original novel, there are usually practical reasons for this. For example, as I was commissioned to write it specifically for a cast of nine. I quite literally ran out of actors with all the parts they had to play and I made the difficult and controversial decision to cut the role of Kitty, one of the Bennet sisters.
This was a sacrifice I made because I felt that out of all the characters, her characteristics were represented in other members of the family and her journey wasn't as vital to the story as other characters'. I hope that her spirit is still there in the play. With Cranford at Christmas, I have been able to be more selective with the incidents and sub-plots I have used due to the nature of the novel, and the fluidity of Gaskell's text meant that I did feel more able to change the order and significance of different events to suit the dramatic purposes of the play. For me, people go to see adaptations of Austen or Charles Dickens because of the story, but with Cranford, they want to see the characters and how they interact with each other and the things that happen to them.
How much do you try to use the novelist's own dialogue?
Of course, you do need to understand the different characters' voices and ways of speaking so that you can script new dialogue if you need it, but even when I am doing this I try to immerse myself in the character and use snatches of dialogue or vocabulary they commonly use to ensure that all "new" dialogue is authentic to both the character and the atmosphere of the novel.
To what degree do you modernise the language/characters/situations for a contemporary audience?
Similarly, I try to allow the characters and situations speak for themselves – the novels I have adapted are so successful and so well-loved because the characters have an appeal and a life that exists beyond the pages in readers' imaginations. I firmly believe that if a character is well-drawn and brought to life in a believable manner, they can speak to a modern audience on many levels without the need to change them or their temporal setting.
Of course, the nature of a stage play means that we don't get glimpses into characters' psyches in the same way as we do in a novel, so the characteristics that define them need to be brought to the surface more to ensure that we, as audience members, understand what the different characters want and need. If we don't, the stakes aren't high enough in the play and we don't believe in the characters. More worryingly, we don't care what happens to them or what the end will be. It's the characters that make an audience invest in a story.
Do you think stage adaptations of classic novels work better than screen ones?
Television and film are much less constrained in terms of time and location, which has an amazing appeal for a writer, and I would love the chance to explore this is a screen adaptation, where there is less need to compromise by sacrificing characters or plotlines due to time considerations. I am an avid viewer of screen adaptations, and I think screenwriters do an absolutely inspiring job at capturing the complexities of character and period on screen –particularly Andrew Davies and Heidi Thomas, responsible for the BBC's Pride and Prejudice and Cranford respectively.
It is the nature of stage adaptations that they will have some broad strokes in plot and character development due to limitations of time an space. But as much I can, I capture the intricacies and details of story and character as this is the best way to not only bring a novel to the stage but to bring any story alive.
Laura Turner is the resident writer at Charterhouse Theatre Company. Her adaptations of A Christmas Carol and Cranford at Christmas are on national tour this winter.
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