Archive for May, 2016

From page to screen

May 31, 2016

I suppose I’ve always been a purist when it comes to adapting a novel for television or the cinema: a book is a book for a reason, and converting it into something else – a play, a film, a TV series – always loses something. However, there are also times when something is gained…

Other forms (I’ll write more fully about significant form in a future post) add a visual element to something that was originally written to appear in print. It’s important to understand how it replaces a space that existed for the imagination to work in when we are reading: we visualise characters and places as we read, often working from our stock of memories of all the people we have ever met and the places we have been to. Thus, when we see a film after having read the book, we may feel that the casting or setting jars with what our imagination had created for us originally. Equally, if we watch a film or television adaptation first and then go on to read the book, our imagination may well be constrained by what we have seen. I do think that it’s important to allow free rein to the imagination, especially in a child’s formative years: if it’s fully developed, it will always be there; it’s a valuable and necessary part of us in so many ways.

Although adaptations add visual elements (which are often powerful and moving), they usually also necessitate trimming or cutting of much material that’s in the original text. Logically, if it takes us a total of, say, twelve hours spread over a few days to read a novel, then to turn it into a two-hour film inevitably means losing something, even though the visual elements are clearly a short-cut and substitute for many pages of written description. Even the first TV adaptation of War and Peace in the early 1970s, which lasted twenty hours (!) had to lose a great deal of Tolstoy‘s masterpiece.

So decisions are made, and can outrage us if we have read the book first and we feel that vital elements have been cut, or even worse, changed, for the sake of – what, exactly? a series suited to the US market, perhaps? However, if we come to the text after the film, we may well be enlightened by the richness of what the author offers us in the original.

What gets cut? Characterisation and location are relatively easy to do with visual support; action has the advantage of looking good on screen and keeping the viewer engaged; visual elements can create atmosphere very effectively indeed. What often suffers are the broader themes and ideas which a writer may have spent a good deal of time on: these may be lost, and their absence contribute to a more lightweight and superficial visual experience.

Things are added, too – and these are the kind of things that really jar for me. Examples: the marvellous adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Persuasion which works beautifully until the very end when the hero and heroine were instructed to kiss – for goodness’ sake! for the US audience. The adaptation of Mansfield Park where we were shown Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram in bed committing adultery. Colin Firth’s pool plunge and wet t-shirt moment. I could go on, but you get the idea, I hope. And please don’t tell me it’s all about making something relevant for a modern audience…

I have come across very good translations from book to film. I’ll cite the original TV adaptation of War and Peace again, because it was a masterpiece of its time; the early 1970s adaptation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy which many of my generation remember with great fondness, but which seems to have been lost forever; the TV adaptation of Middlemarch which did its best with a doorstopper of a novel; Volker Schlondorff‘s film of GrassThe Tin Drum, which, although only the first half of this epic novel, was stunningly faithful to the original.

Horrors include most adaptations of GCSE set books turned into theatre by companies desperate to milk the school market for cash, such as stage versions of To Kill A Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.

Lastly, it occurred to me that science fiction comes off pretty well in the cinema, and I’m wondering why – perhaps it’s partly because of its emphasis on spectacle and imagination rather than ideas (gross oversimplification here, I know) but films such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly managed to enhance their original novels, and I’m looking forward to seeing the series of The Man in the High Castle at some point…

Permission not to like

May 30, 2016

When teaching, I often formed the impression that students were in some way in awe of books, literature, writers and poetry, and that they needed to be reassured that it was all right for them to have their own personal reaction to a text: there was nothing wrong with them if they didn’t like something. I realised that it was part of my role to give them ‘permission’ to dislike something, often leading by example, sharing my own likes and dislikes. When students saw that I both liked and disliked certain books and writers, they were able to be more honest in class: obviously, I never knew what they said outside the classroom…

What I wanted was for students not just to like or dislike (or, indeed, to love or loathe) but to be able to explain why, to give reasons for their reactions, and hopefully to illustrate those reasons so that I and the rest of the class could share them, and argue with them.

This became quite easy at GCSE in my final years, where, in the compulsory poetry anthology, and among the compulsory pre-twentieth century poems (yes, you foster a love of poetry by government edict, forcing it down their throats) there featured a positively dreadful poem by Wordsworth called The Affliction of Margaret. It droned on for two large pages, overblown verse and sentiments, awful rhyme, very repetitively. I hated it with a great loathing, and would share this with my class, often before we read it, pointing out to them that we had no option but to spend a little time on it. Then we would read it, explain it, make some notes, and discuss how they might need to use it in the exam, and how they might avoid using it. All of this made life a great deal easier and kept the students on my side.

We often discussed what we read; students were curious about what I read, and were sometimes surprised about what I owned up to: it wasn’t wall-to-wall Dickens and Hardy. Again, these are two writers I have not grown to like during my lengthy life of reading; I let my students know this, and am proud to be able to say that I never inflicted either of these writers on 14 year-olds. At that age most students will find them long and dull. I did point out that they might choose to read and even enjoy them later on in life. I tried – within the usual constraints – to choose books with which the students might feel some connection.

I never taught a text I didn’t like. When it came to sixth form, we often argued. It took the best part of a year to persuade a certain student (who will know who I’m referring to if they ever read this) that there was some literary merit in Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain. The recognition was grudging and hard-won.

Readers will realise that there’s quite a lot of literature I don’t bother with, or actively dislike; life is too short to waste eyeball-time. I am open to being persuaded to read things I express reluctance about, and do sometimes change my mind. In the classroom, however, students tend to regard their teachers as experts, which to an extent we are, though it’s also important to let them know our limitations: we are not the fount of all wisdom, though they may well learn something from us. What, in the end, I wanted was for everyone to be able to speak openly and honestly, but also to learn that it was easy to just dislike something, harder to explain and justify their point of view; that was where the learning lay… they even came to anticipate my one-word response: ‘Evidence?’

Gosh, I miss it…

The Alchemist at the RSC

May 29, 2016

Ben Jonson‘s The Alchemist is a wonderful play to read – full of deception, abuse, wit, fast-paced, hectic, non-stop action; I was looking forward to seeing it in performance. We saw the first preview, which is the first time it’s played before a live audience, and so were warned to expect some rough edges. And there were some; the whole performance had me thinking more deeply about the kind of play it is and how a twenty-first century audience can respond to a seventeenth-century social satire.

Herein lies the problem, it seemed to me: it’s a genre we aren’t familiar with, and cannot really liken to anything we are familiar with: it’s not farce, it’s not pantomime, it’s not sitcom, though there are elements of all of these. It’s hilarious – when the audience gets the jokes – and that isn’t always.

The plot is pretty complex and convoluted, basically involving a trio of confidence tricksters fooling all the other characters most of the time, but also fighting amongst themselves; at the end their schemes are brought to a sudden stop and all is revealed, but no-one is really punished. The tricksters are let off (no doubt to have another go another day), and the conned put up with their losses rather than be publicly exposed for the fools they have been…

The first half of the performance was fast-paced, and this was a problem, perhaps with the genre: there was no variation is pace or pitch or tone, which became monotonous and a little tiring. The second half was better in that there was a sense of its gradually building up to a crescendo (actually a real explosion!). The actors were all really good, energetically playing their stereotypical characters to great effect.

Although when reading the play I was aware of the cardboard nature of Jonson’s characters – there’s very little development, and no real need or opportunity for the audience to sympathise, or indeed dislike them – this does also affect one’s response to performance, where the thinness of the characters is going to be much more evident when they are onstage in front of us. In the end, it was quite an enjoyable romp, which will surely be slicker and better and funnier after a few performances. And it was my second play of the day, so I was a bit tired, and probably less appreciative than I’d be another day…

Cymbeline at the RSC

May 28, 2016

This performance was the highlight of the week for me. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, perhaps a tragi-comedy, perhaps a romance, depending on how you like your classifications. It’s rarely performed and rarely appears on an exam syllabus; I’d neither taught it nor seen it; having read it and enjoyed it, I was really looking forward to seeing it. It’s noted for seriously tortuous syntax in much of the dialogue, and has the most complex final scene I’ve ever come across in a play…

The setting was a dystopian future one; the various settings in Italy were ‘enhanced’ by the delivery of dialogue translated into Italian (and some French for one of the characters); the Roman ambassadors spoke in Latin. Translations were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. Such gimmickry – and other touches, too – added nothing, and had the potential to confuse, as well as doing unnecessary violence to Shakespeare’s original. However, I was far too focused on the language and action to spend much time grinding my teeth over the director’s silliness…

The key actors’ performances were stunning. Imogen – or Innogen, as the director insisted she be called (if you want the minutiae of the textual history, you’ll have to look it up), her husband Posthumus, and his loyal friend Pisania (actually Pisanio in the text, but there were several parts taken from males and given to females) worked very well together, Iachimo was extremely convincing as the Italian seducer who failed to seduce, and the Welsh ‘mountaineers’ were superb. Cloten, the doltish son of the queen, was insufficiently doltish.

The action flowed better in the first half, where the story is clearer; it becomes extremely complicated in the second half, especially in the battle scenes, and the masque was pretty naff; masques had become a necessary addition to plays at that time, fashionable and suited to the new indoor theatres being built, and whatever you do with them nowadays fails to convince, as they are something a modern audience has no way to relate to. What you do with a final scene where so many loose ends need to be tied up is a real challenge, but if the actors are strong enough to carry the plot line along securely through all the revelations, it works, and it did here.

The play explores the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, as do the other final plays like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest; as all the secrets are revealed in the final scene and all sorts of people are reunited with each other, I experienced these themes working very powerfully and movingly as everything moved towards the conclusion; yes, Shakespeare stage-manages all this, but it really does demonstrate his skill as a dramatist, that he can nearly move you to tears. And, having wondered why the director swapped the genders of Cymbeline and his consort over, I could see that a mother reunited with long-lost children was perhaps even more moving that Shakespeare himself might have imagined. This really was a stunning performance; I watched from the second row and it was wonderful to be able to see the actors’ expressions and gestures so clearly.

Hamlet at the RSC

May 28, 2016

I’m just back from my Shakespeare week. We saw the RSC production of Hamlet, which has a mainly black cast, a black Hamlet, and African-themed set and music. I didn’t find that any of this added anything to the meaning of the play for me, although the opening scenes with Gertrude and Claudius briefly suggested Robert Mugabe and his consort, and I suppose quickly helped establish the idea of Denmark as a corrupt state. But the overall effect was as confusing as it was enlightening, I felt by the end.

What really stunned me was the actor playing Hamlet, Paapa Essiedu. He was amazingly energetic and expressive; his diction was very clear, illuminating the language and its meanings very effectively: I encountered some new ideas and meanings which had never before occurred to me in my years of teaching the play, and seeing it several times onstage, as well as on film. For me, he was one of the best Hamlets I’ve seen.

He was also really illuminating in his portrayal of Hamlet’s madness, which, I think, is one of the touchstones of a good performance: Hamlet sets out by saying he will put on an antic disposition from time to time as it suits him, implying that he will be in conscious control of it, but the text shows that madness takes control of him at times, and he is not able to master it, and a good actor will be able to show this happening. There must be a dynamic which emerges through rehearsal as the actor gradually realises how this can be presented onstage. Anyway, it really worked for me in Essiedu’s performance.

Ophelia was also well-played: again, her madness is something of a touchstone, and it seems to be incredibly difficult to pull off effectively nowadays: the twee-ness of the past no longer works, and some modern efforts, ranting, over-sexualised or just bizarre, can be positively toe-curling. But this Ophelia’s screams were quite spine-chilling, as part of the overall effect: she did seem like someone unhinged by what she had seen and been through.

Various things didn’t seem to work. Despite the brilliance of Hamlet’s performance, I didn’t feel a great sense of tragic loss at the end of the play. I felt that the dynamics between various pairs of characters didn’t come across terribly well: you need to feel that there’s a real connection between Hamlet and Horatio, between Laertes and Ophelia – and I didn’t. And the fight scene, done with African weapons – sticks of some sort, with small knives at the ends – didn’t work for me; nothing works better than the fencing foils which Shakespeare put in his text. I’m glad I saw it, just for Hamlet himself.

Some problems with teaching literature…

May 15, 2016

Back in the old days, there used to be a genuine unseen paper at A Level, where any text might turn up – prose, poetry or drama – for the hapless student to analyse and write intelligibly about. It doesn’t seem to exist now; any unseen text will be linked to a certain theme, and thus present more clues and information to the student. Preparing students for the unseen paper entailed two years of carefully selecting texts to explore in class, to analyse and deconstruct. I used to love teaching it, partly because it allowed me to bring some of my favourite texts along and introduce them.

Until, that is, a student one day bemoaned the need to analyse poems: it took all the fun and enjoyment out of them; one could never go back and read them with innocence, as it were, without the weight of critical analysis overburdening everything… the enjoyment had gone. Good point. The smart-arse answer would have been along the lines of not being there to enjoy, but to study. I bit my lip.

I’d never looked at it like that; it stopped me short and made me think, and I find myself coming back to that student’s point every so often. There is (or was) an innocence to reading, a pure pleasure and enjoyment, especially encountering a text for the first time; you could wallow in a story for the delight of the plot, finish it and think ‘that was good!’ And stop there.

I don’t know when the insidious analysis started; presumably when we were being prepared for O Level back in the dim and distant past, and it went on from there: more detailed analysis at sixth form level; deconstruction in greater depth at university; original analysis and criticism at research level. And where had the innocent pleasure gone?

Because you do end up taking a text to bits. You look at words and why they were chosen, at sounds, at rhyme, rhythm and metre if it’s verse, as well as all the poetic devices; you look at pace, tone and mood. You get down to the detail of what makes a text work, what makes it affect you the way it does. And all this is, to me, fascinating.

Eventually I came to realise that for me that original, innocent pleasure hadn’t gone. I could still manage to read, at least first time around, with that original innocence, and not allow too much analytical thought to creep in, or even suppress it. I gradually came to understand that my studies had provided me with a toolkit that allowed me to get more from what I was reading, to think more deeply, more clearly – and perhaps feel superior to those who didn’t? Perhaps I was deluding myself. To be honest, I can never know: rewinding the clock isn’t possible. But I do know that I really enjoy and value what I’ve been taught and what I’ve learnt over the years in terms of how to get the most out of what I read, making connections and links to all sorts of other texts, writers, places and ideas.

In terms of my students and my teaching, I realised that somehow I needed to try and allow them to retain some of the integrity of the text, and this wasn’t easy. It meant that there needed to be a lot more dialogue in the classroom – less of me teaching – a lot of encouragement to express opinion and personal response, and I needed to give permission not to like, or even to loathe, a text. With a poem, it was relatively easy at the end of a session to pause and re-read the poem in its entirety to bring it all back together as a poem after having previously spent an hour disembowelling it; with a novel or a play, that’s not so easy. But I do think that the relatively recent increased emphasis on personal response in examinations has made this easier. And there was always the pleasure when a student offered a new interpretation or meaning, which had never occurred to you…

On teaching Shakespeare

May 13, 2016

51QrP0QTnTL._AC_US160_A follower’s question about the teaching of Shakespeare has had me reflecting on my experiences in the classroom.

I was wary of teaching Shakespeare too early on in secondary school. I know there are people who think ‘the younger the better’, but the other side of that idea is dealing with the kind of questions students are likely to ask; I have never been one to censor anything in the classroom, and so waiting until students were – hopefully – of a suitable mature age to be given honest and truthful answers to their questions, felt more sensible to me. Inevitably questions about sex would arise: Shakespeare is full of allusions, references, and, more than anything, word-play. Explaining Romeo and Juliet even to Y9 students demanded a certain level of care… so my personal preference was to wait until Y9.

There is the idea of beginning earlier with something more innocuous, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, but I tried that once, at the start of my teaching career, and never went back to it. Trying to interest eleven and twelve year-olds, particularly boys, in fairies and magic is just not going to work.

The choice of play is crucial when students are younger. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar all offer something to students in terms of plot, action and issues for reflecting on. And I think that to be able to offer some recognisable connection with their own lives helps to make the plays work. With Romeo and Juliet there is lively action, the idea of young love, and the idea of parents trying to control one’s life, and my students were more than willing to engage with these issues! Macbeth raises the ideas of hopes, dreams and ambitions and how far one is prepared to go in achieving those, as well as the idea of someone being influenced by their partner to do things they might otherwise not have done. And Julius Caesar obviously raises the idea of what one should do about bad rulers, tyrants, and how we make such judgements on rulers, as well as the ways in which the common people are manipulated.

Clearly, as students grow older, they are able to engage with more complex plays and issues: they can understand the idea of sexual jealousy as raised in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example, although they might not kill as a response to it… and one can explore racism in many ways by studying Othello, or The Merchant of Venice.


Studying Shakespeare in the classroom is a bit of a contradiction, as he was a dramatist and wrote for performance, not reading. Some schools are fortunate in having theatres reasonably accessible and can often take students to live performances which present the plays as they were meant to be experienced. Other schools – ours included – are not so fortunate. I tried, over the years, to develop a way of teaching which addressed this problem.

I’d always do a very quick read through of the whole text, with the emphasis on getting a grasp of the plot and the main characters, and noticing what the main ideas were. I must stress here, that I was never one for just studying extracts. I think that’s a meaningless activity; if there isn’t time, or you can’t make the whole play work, then best not bother. After an initial read, we would watch a TV or film performance of the play. We’d watch it straight through – obviously it might take several lessons, but I wouldn’t constantly be pausing it to comment or explain; again, allowing students to try and grasp the overall effect seemed much more important. If they were studying it for examination, I’d suggest they try to follow the text as they watched, the idea being that if they matched dialogue, gestures and action to the printed words it would improved comprehension. Feedback suggested that this did indeed work.

After that, we had a choice, depending on whether they were studying for an examination, or to write coursework on the play. If a detailed study of the play and serious questioning and note-making were required, now was the time to do it. This was often the lengthiest, and perhaps the most tedious part of the work, but at least the class now understood what they were dealing with.

After this, we would look in more detail at character, themes and issues raised by the play, and I used to do this through group work and presentations to the class; each group would be enabled to show both their understanding of the play and their allocated topic, and their ability to explain it to their peers, as well as manipulating their knowledge and understanding in ways which were a good preparation for what they might be asked to do in an examination. If there was time at this stage, it was also good to be able to watch another (different) complete performance; if we were really lucky, it might be possible to see the play in the theatre…

Looking back over my nearly thirty years in the classroom, I can honestly say that I always loved teaching Shakespeare – correction, trying to pass on my love of Shakespeare. I miss it, but the week after next is my annual Shakespeare week.

Svetlana Alexievich: Chernobyl Prayer

May 11, 2016

51QT-vnBv4L._AC_US160_I remember the disaster at Chernobyl happening thirty years ago. A major recollection is the Western attitude: it was crappy communist technology; it could never happen here. I’ve never believed that. And we are perhaps about to have new nuclear plants built here in Britain by the Chinese…

For complex historical reasons, a branch of my family found itself, not through choice, living in what was then the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the single territory most affected by the disaster. I have no evidence to link them with the disaster, but a couple of members of our family died unexpectedly young of cancer after the ‘accident’. There were stories of luminous rain at night at the time of the accident.

Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her writing last year; it’s easy to see why. This book is a series of monologues – obviously prompted by questions – from a wide range of people whose lives were affected by what happened. It is one of the grimmest and most harrowing things I’ve ever read.

It’s framed by two lengthy pieces from two women whose partners were some of those who went in at the very start, with no thought of the consequences to themselves, to mitigate the consequences of the accident. They both died, very unpleasantly. Other stories are just as chilling, in other ways: the two year-old who begged for his father’s hat, and developed a brain tumour. The little girl born with so many body parts missing or mutated that I could not believe someone like that could have lived…

Apparently the equivalent of the radioactive fallout from 350 Hiroshimas is distributed randomly over the territory of Belarus… But the most shocking thing of all, that comes across repeatedly, is that people cannot comprehend the nature of the silent, deadly disaster that has happened to them, and so they continue as normal. Belarus, after all, suffered horrendously in the Second World War; its people knew what war, disaster, horror meant. Here, they refuse to leave, they go back, they produce, sell and eat their crops; people loot, steal and sell stuff on the black market; the radioactivity is distributed across the entire nation and more widely…

The attempt to clear up is Pythonesque: everything is supposed to be buried, even contaminated soil… and there aren’t the resources, there isn’t the organisation to do any of this properly. It’s very easy to talk about communist inefficiency and corruption meaning that it was chaotic, but I cannot see how any country anywhere, faced with a catastrophe of this magnitude, would be able to cope sensibly and rationally.

Alexievich’s monologue format works really well: ordinary people are allowed to speak. Their intelligence – or their ignorance – shines through; their bravery, or recklessness and stupidity is evident. People’s loyalty to their country, and willingness to do whatever was necessary to tackle the immediate consequences of the accident is very clear; chaos and confusion only unfolds later on. She allows experts and lay people to speak, those ‘responsible’ and frauds, the young and the old. I read compulsively, fascinated and horrified.

This is a link to an article I came across just before I wrote this post:

Germany had so much renewable energy on Sunday that it had to pay people to use electricity


Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library

May 9, 2016

51VA7luBneL._AC_US160_I like Borges: he’s another wonderfully learned, eclectic writer like Umberto Eco, who, of course, paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by naming the blind librarian Jorge… He’s an essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, too, offering thoughtful and provocative disquisitions on a wide range of subjects. I’ve read and enjoyed his collected short stories a couple of times, and decided to venture into his non-fiction.

In his early writings, you can see just where some of the later stories were going to come from: the ideas, the thinking is the same. There are some curious book reviews, and thumbnail portraits of various authors. Here, Borges is both compelling and perceptive, precisely because he zeroes in on his subject-matter from a very individual, and usually totally unexpected viewpoint. In a review he can demolish a book and a writer in very few words – Aldous Huxley comes off very badly – and equally swiftly praise writers such as Woolf and Faulkner. Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake is damned completely in less than a page, and he comes back to this stance on that novel a number of times in different places… Edward Gibbon and Walt Whitman also come in for some fairly fulsome praise.

I often reflect on which writers and books will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting looking at these reviews, a lot of which are from the 1930s and 1940s: some of the titles and writers we still recognise, whereas many have vanished without trace. He has, for instance, a curious and quite deep regard for GK Chesterton, whom almost nobody reads nowadays.

A good deal of the content of this collection is, however, rather dated, and presumably of some academic interest to students of Borges’ work; the good bits do need some searching out, but they are certainly here. His essays on Nazism, and Germany in the Second World War are very interesting. I’d never heard of Biathanatos, a defence of suicide by the poet John Donne; I was surprised by his liking of (some) science fiction, including Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles, and there’s a really good essay on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from 1964, which was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. That one is both sensitive and quit sharply focused and interesting on language issues. The most moving essay is probably on his blindness and what he felt he shared with other writers who had lost their sight.

The Total Library is a Borgesian concept, a library containing every book which can be written, not only in every language, but in every non-language as well; it features in one of his most famous short stories The Library of Babel, and thanks to the internet and its possibilities, someone has actually created it and you can go and play with it here.



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