Laura Turner On ... Adapting Novels for the Stage
It's hard to put a definition of "easiest" on any of the adaptations I have written because they have varied so widely in terms of both the source novels themselves and the approaches I have taken. For example, the process of adapting Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice was very different to adapting Cranford because the Elizabeth Gaskell novel is much less plot-driven than those of Jane Austen.
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?
I would say that Pride and Prejudice has been the most difficult to adapt for the stage in terms of the pressure resting on the adaptation. So many people have read and loved the novel or seen the infamous BBC adaptation that the expectations for the production were huge, and I know this is something that was felt by everyone involved in the production – particularly the director and the actors playing Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy.
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?
My ethos is to remain as true to the novel as I possibly can, because I am very aware that people go to see a production of Pride and Prejudice or A Christmas Carol because they are either familiar with the original story, or want to experience that story for the first time. I feel a huge sense of duty to accurately represent these amazing works of literature on stage, but at the same time, I have to be aware that I am a writer too and I want my voice to be there in the adaptation.
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?
As much as possible. In my mind, this is where the importance of capturing the original novel becomes paramount. Rendering the specific atmosphere of a text on stage is a very subtle process, whereas it is much more concrete when you use the novelist's own words. I think this is really important and wherever possible I return to the dialogue of the text.
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?
I very rarely change the language too dramatically because this is another aspect of remaining true to the novel – audiences go to see an adaptation because they want to be immersed in the story, which is inseparable to the period in which it is set. In the same way as when Chapterhouse produces these adaptations, they ensure that all costumes are completely authentic to the period (be it Regency or Victorian), the play has to "sound" right so audiences feel they have been transported back in time.
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?
I think they are very different, and difficult to compare. For me, there is something wonderful about being in a theatre and experiencing that intensity of a two-hour production that sweeps you away to another time and place. But at the same time, I can completely see the benefits of a screen adaptation, particularly those that are long-running series, in which the writer really has time to develop the stories and sub-plots and allow the characters to slowly change, learn and progress.
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.