I’ve seen the TV adaptation, so now I’ll buy the book. This week I’ll be picking up a copy of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong. It’s one of those “on the list” titles I usually plan to read someday but never do, unless under orders from members of my book club.
But it’s not my desire to extend the televisual experience that’s taking me back to the original. I just want to reassure myself that Faulks is a far better writer than this excruciatingly winsome production suggested. I wonder how many people will feel the same?
Faulks’s novel was voted Britain’s 13th most popular book in the BBC’s 2003 Big Read poll and this is the third time it’s been adapted, on this occasion by Abi Morgan of The Hour. Historian Simon Schama in The New Yorker proclaimed that it was not a perfect book - “just a great one” - and as it’s been selling in its thousands since publication in 1993, it’s obviously got something going for it.
Yet somehow this critically acclaimed bestseller morphed into a fey romance between two pouting leads, Eddie Redmayne and Clémence Poésy, who were never happier than when admiring each other’s delicate cheekbones – which they did a lot, to a dreary little piano refrain. The CGI battlefields were grey-hued but the images were so clean they could have been freshly laundered. And there was absolutely no tension, neither in the trenches nor between the Bambi-eyed, simpering leads.
Luckily, it’s not always this way. Sometimes a film or TV adaptation can awaken you to aspects of a novel that you’ve overlooked, or give glorious body to characters that have only had an emotional presence in your imagination. Dickens, Jane Austen and George Eliot have all done particularly well on screen in vivid adaptations of Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice and Daniel Deronda, among many others. Victorian prose suggests passions to which actors can bring gripping intensity.
Although the classics will always be popular, a TV adaptation can renew excitement around a work that has been off the radar for a while, like Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, or Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife. And if this isn’t all feeling a bit too period, let’s not forget some of the more glamorous recent adaptations such as Game of Thrones, Vampire Diaries and True Blood.
So which book would you love to see on TV? And maybe you know who you want in the leading roles? Let us know in the comment box below.