Eighteen years after he sold the rights, Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong has finally made it to the screen. Long expected to be shot as a movie, this intimate epic about passion and trench warfare has instead become a two-part BBC1 dramatisation, the first episode of which airs on Sunday 22 January at 9pm.
Yet despite its turbulent production history, dramatist Abi Morgan has spoken of how “incredibly liberating” it felt when ideas for a film were dropped in favour of a TV version.
“Suddenly I wasn’t wrestling with whether it was a war story or a love story. I could have both,” she told an audience at a Bafta screening. “I love television. I love the intimacy of it.”
With its eye for historical detail and romantic undertow, Birdsong has come to be regarded as a modern classic in the years since its publication in 1993, even managing to rank at number 13 in the BBC’s Big Read survey to find Britain’s favourite book. So was Morgan – whose recent work includes Mrs Thatcher biopic The Iron lady and BBC2’s The Hour – daunted by taking on such a revered novel?
“It’s such an exquisite book, so it is sort of terrifying. What you fundamentally have to do is come to it completely new. More than anything it’s a historical book and with Harry Patch [the First World War veteran] dying and war ongoing, I felt an incredible sense of wanting to carry that. That was the story for me.”
In the drama, Eddie Redmayne plays Steven Wraysford, a young lieutenant at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 who recalls an affair he had in 1910 with the married Isabelle (Clemence Poesy). It’s a haunting and harrowing tale, studded with scenes of intense passion but also claustrophobia as Wraysford’s men journey underground to lay explosives beneath German trenches.
“It’s about the two most extreme things that you can experience in life,” said director Philip Martin. “The intensity of love, the intensity of war and somehow trying to find a way through that.”
Far from being a mere period piece, this adaptation also makes use of very modern influences – the 2010 Afghanistan-set documentary Restrepo, for instance, which Martin found was important in setting a tone for Birdsong.
“It gave us a really interesting take on soldiering in that those who served in the First World War are often portrayed as doomed youth rather than as soldiers. And I think Sebastian’s book is also the start of a wave reassessing that concept. They’re a group of soldiers trying to make sense of the situation and trying to make sense of their lives.
War may be the great leveller, but Morgan was also keen to offer realism away from the battlefield: “There’s a rawness and an openness to the way sex is portrayed, too. We see the violence of war but I wanted to give the same level of intensity to the sex. I don’t know if I’d have been allowed to write that, say, 30 years ago, or for it to be portrayed in the way that it is.”
It may have been a project nearly two decades in the gestation, but Birdsong is sure to thrill and move viewers in equal measure. Capturing the essence of Faulks’s story without being slavishly devoted to every sentence, it’s an elegiac and at times horrifying watch that does justice to a beloved book. “We have Sebastian’s blessing,” said Martin and there can surely be no doubting the director’s words.