WARNING: This is a SPOILER HEAVY article that freely discusses plot points about books written over a century ago and TV broadcast last month.
The principle of an adaptation is simple; take a book that has a built-in fanbase, transcribe it into a script though the extensive use of CTRL-C and CTRL-V, and pop out a bit of hit TV. Most of the actually hard work of creation, coming up with plot, characters and dialogue, has already been done, so all the production team really have to do is get the actors, sets, and costumes together. Right?
Well, no. Very much “no”. As the BBC’s big three adaptations of Christmas 2019 – The War Of The Worlds, A Christmas Carol, and Dracula – have shown, there is a whole lot more involved and a lot of decisions to be made. These demonstrate how three of the main paths that can be taken on the basic adaptation front, and how contemporary producers must try to satisfy current viewership demands for works made for a readership outside of living memory. They also demonstrate how the originals works, each of which undeniably and immeasurably changed their genre, are now really showing their age.
But, before that, the basic problems of making such adaptation need to be addressed.
The first, and most pressing when trying to sell TV to a big audience, is their lack of diversity. In each of the books white males are the main characters, the most exotic character being Count Dracula from Eastern Europe. The few women who appear in the stories are secondary characters, and mostly victims of the situations, and BAME actors maybe getting in a background shot. That’s a rough 55% of a UK audience without a hook character, so if you want the money you’re going to have to beef up those roles.
Next you have the actual texts, and the differences between the written word and TV screen. Dracula is, notoriously, impossible to convert directly to any kind of script as it’s written in letters, diary entries, ships logs, and newspaper articles. “Why can’t they just do the book”? Well, because it would be awful. That format is great for reading, but crap for telly. A producer instantly has to start translating things and that automatically means drifting away from the original work.
In a similar vein, The War Of The Worlds hardly has any real characters in it, because H.G. Wells thought (rightly) that the key thing was the apocalyptic destruction. The narrator is never named, probably because his job for the first half is to go from nightmare A to nightmare B and tell you what he saw. There are some brief characters, but only one ever gets a name as it’s all about the crowd scenes. The second half is more personal, but by then the narrators’ only aspect is “oh my God, the world has ended!” and even the people he meets are too busy having a breakdown to be real personalities. So, does the producer go large-scale and have it done in an hour, or make up the details of the people we meet for three episodes and make up some relate-able sympathy?
Then there is pacing, something that telling stories on TV has always had to fight against. Books can have things happen whenever they want, chapters as thick or thin as is needed, and can play around with word-count by a couple thousand in either direction. Making scripts for TV is about fitting in with a schedule and hitting beats absolutely on time. You want to sell your show to the US to get in the extra cash for the ballroom scene? Congratulations, you’ve got to work around their ad-breaks. The BBC have given you three 85-minute slot? Bravo, now throw in an extra 3 minutes in episode one, regardless of if you have to pull it out of your butt. That fan favourite speech at the end? Yeah, you’ve got to lose 20 seconds from that. Pick which three lines will get you the least number of death threats.
Finally, you also have to deal with the spectre of other adaptations. If, like with these three, the story has been told and retold in film and TV, you are going to get expectations from the audience for things that just weren’t in the book but are now part of the mythos.
Not an easy task, and each show handled it in their own manner.
The War Of The Worlds
The opening salvo of the BBC’s Christmas dramas, and a complicated blend of original and invented content. The basic story is, thankfully, kept as per the original. Everything is fine, Martians turn up kill everyone because Earthly/Victorian guns will not stop them, and germs finish them off. Certain aspects, like the building of an underground city and people harvesting, gets left out, but the core is still there.
The narrator (George), and pals, get their traditional buffs to make them actually interesting. This included the narrator’s wife, who got a name (Amy) and personal motivations because Peter Harness felt it was “very important to me to make the female character three-dimensional”. He also put in a subplot about George and Amy being radical free thinkers, having been exiled to Woking in disgrace, with George working for a newspaper and having a Ministry of War brother. On the plus side, this helped put him – and thus the viewer – at the centre of communications for the event. On the down side, their radical lifestyle really smelt like “sexing-things-up” and is unlikely to age well as it makes the couple seem like a pair of out-of-time hipsters.
The biggest twists were with the timeline, whereby the events of the invasion and the post-apocalyptic wasteland they create are shown side by side. Given the simplicity and wide-spread knowledge of the plot this works surprisingly well, as it plays with the viewers expectations and makes them feel that they don’t know what’s going to happen next. It also accomplishes this without actually changing much of the core story itself, playing mostly with timings and sequence.
It also allows for themes such as the Religion Vs Science moments, to be moved from the hyper-kinetic action environment to a quieter, more contemplative setting. Having them happen in a vivid hellscape also helps the modern viewer empathise as to why someone could realistically think it was all the act of an angry God. Sadly, that kind of approach wasn’t taken through all the episodes, resulting in the then-contemporary, and thus obvious, colonialist subtext of the story being explicitly spelt out in mind-crushing detail. It almost broke the 4th wall in its attempt to fill the gap of centuries of context, although it can be argued that such a mental shove would be needed for an audience that has mostly heard the “…and then everyone died” elements of the story.
Overall it was probably the most accurate of the three, even though liberties were taken. The core plot, the central message, and most of the major scenes were still there. It just needed extra dressing to stretch out the running time and give it the Personal Touch that the modern audience needs to stay engaged. Then again, it isn’t the only version to have done such a thing, building a tradition that is now an essential part of any telling.
A Christmas Carol
When it was announced that the writer of Peaky Blinders was going to be at the helm for this US/UK co production, people knew it was going to be a bit more hardcore than previous offerings. What they didn’t know was that it was going to be such a wild reinvention of the story. Again, like with The War Of The Worlds, the basic framework is there. But the former tried to add some connective tissue to keep the audience interested, this decided to wholesale fill in gaps that virtually no other production had thought were missing.
Some of the decisions make a lot of sense. Mrs Cratchit is no longer white and gets a far bigger role than in the original. Scrooge and Marley’s bastardry is now focused on asset-stripping, health-and-safety violations, and sending complaints to the police to stop carol singers. Good, solid changes to make the contemporary audience care and relate to things that bit more easily. Even moving Tiny Tim’s death to being due to Bob having to work a Christmas day, rather than a lack of cash, works in its own way. They shake things up, they keep you interested.
The decision to up the supernatural element of the proceedings also has a logic and a precedent to it, as the original subtitle for the work was “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas”. The Ghosts become more sinister, the sights of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are more nightmareish and phantasmagorical than in previous works, and Scrooge swings between being tortured and educated by the happenings he sees.
However, with this also came the contemporary build a mythos for the ghosts themselves and a firm reason for Marley’s appearance before Scrooge. Previous to now there was no reason, it was an inexplicable phenomenon. By explaining the nature of the spirits, by giving them rules and reason, they and the story change. Arguably it makes them safer, more restrained. They can no longer happen to anyone of ill manner, so the story becomes more a set of rules for how to avoid such a situation rather than. In this case: don’t piss of Mary Cratchit as she knows some kind of dark magic.
One set of cause and an effect leads to another, and the final, biggest, change made was trying to explain how and why Scrooge was the horrible person he is. What made Mary Cratchit summon ghosts on Scrooge? Him forcing her into prostitution to pay for Tiny Tim’s medical bills, all in the name of his idle curiosity about how far people will let themselves be degraded. End result: he’s no longer a joyless miser but a brutal sociopath. But what made him that way? Being pimped out to the Headmaster of the school he attended by his clearly psychopathic father.
By filling in gaps that never really existed, the story is changed even if the plot is mostly maintained, Was Scrooge a victim or a victimiser? Should we feel sorry for him beyond his lack of ability to enjoy Christmas? Is Mary Cratchit now the baddie for intentionally traumatising someone with clear PTSD? And is it still an adaptation or are we moving to “based on”?
“Based on” is a wonderful phrase, and is dearly loved by writers of True-Life stories because it so utterly nebulous a concept. Similarly, it allows writers such as Gatiss and Moffat to go to the ultimate extreme of adaptations: rewriting everything so it’s almost a whole new work. The end result will definitely have people talking and you can never be accused of just doing the same old thing. Good or bad? Well, that’s down to the individual viewer’s opinion, but you do run the risk of upsetting those who wanted “the real thing”.
Again though, the question of “what actually is The Real Things??” rears its head, because Dracula is not only one of the most remade and rewritten stories going but even the original text has been analysed to the point of undeath. Is it an analogy about sexual repression? A warning about how the British think foreigners are horrible? A hit piece about how awful Stoker’s boss was and a cash in on the penny-dreadful craze? Even with 270 minutes, how on earth do you get all of that into one script? Is it any wonder people ditch the subtexts that bore them and focus on the parts that get their mind flowing? Even at a thin 101 pages there is enough for it to be a Choose Your Own Adventure when you have pare it down.
The Gatiss/Moffat version is also interesting because each episode is a very different style of adaptation in its own right. The first episode sticks closest to the original works, starting it’s focus with hapless lawyer Harker and telling a pretty straightforward and un-invented version of his trip to the Count’s castle. It’s heavy on the physical, mental, and moral corruption side of things (Harker essentially being a ghoul) and whilst the personality of Dracula is very specific to this series, it’s still recognisable and straight forward. Even the decision to make Van Helsing a woman is done with a lightish touch, the character’s personality being as per the books and their gender reveal being an excellent example of audience misdirection. The attack on the church and the anti-vampire nuns are a bit of a stretch, but it works as a means of female empowerment in what is otherwise a dicks-only story with the ladies only there die looking very pretty .
The second episode takes a far bigger step into the land of “just making it up” by taking a very underdeveloped part of the original and padding it out a lot. By showing what happened on the Count’s voyage to England, whilst using the few elements from the book, the casual viewer gets some exciting details about what makes this Count tick and the knowledgeable see something not really done before. As long as the start, log entries, and end results are the same as the box the writers can effectively do what they want and only adds to the mythos, rather than facing accusations of “doing it wrong”.
There is also the bonus of the knowing being aware of how it will end, and getting to make guesses on where it will all go. Admittedly having Sister Helsing on the boat makes things a bit more divergent, but it’s within the confines of the original and Stoker should have known the risks when he kept it all mysterious by not logging every detail possible. This is no worse than all those recent horror movies that tell you where the monster came from and filled in the back story, even if those tend to demystify the terrors involved. Or the multi-page fan stories about the third StormTrooper on the right on the Death Star.
The final episode is the one that just goes “sod it! We’re going our own thing now”, a decision that is thankfully pleasantly signposted by the end of episode two being Drac landing in Whitby about 120 years after he left port. All bets are off, all the previous episodes of plot are neutered, and the writers can do what they want. A number of the plot points from the original are kept (Dracula’s attraction to Lucy, Helsing chasing him down, Renfield being an utterly slappable git of a lawyer) but they are all twisted into new forms.
With the expectations mutated, the writers can get on with telling their story whilst needing only the figleaf of the old framework to still say it’s Dracula. Again, how well it works it up to the viewer. But it works on the level of allowing Dracula to become a modern fear that is relevant to the audience and it’s time. It also lets touches from the previous 100 years of Dracula and vampire films get thrown in, with visual references to Bela Lugosi, Hammer Horror and others, with a touch of the 80s ennui dramas for taste. It’s admitting that Dracula is now a meta-fiction, and a millstone of clichés, and that you can’t tell the story without saying something about what the mythological vampire currently represents. Plus who doesn’t like a decent Peter Cushing curtain leap after ten minutes of people gobbing on about the nature of immorality?
So, did these approaches succeed? It depends who you ask. For the critics, it’s the usual mixed bag of for and against, depending on who their editor wants to get clicks from. People seem to have quite moaning about adaptations alone, mostly focusing on the quality of the works as a new pieces in and of themselves. The War of the Worlds got called up for being a bit dull and impersonal (which the original was), and A Christmas Carol’s biggest complaints were about where it went wildly off-source. Dracula was judged more on the work itself than the adaptation aspect, but people are so used to a new one every couple of years that it tends to get a pass.
For the viewers they have to be classed as a success because they got a combined viewership of around 25 million on their UK viewings alone. Once they hit the states and the rest of the world that’ll easily double, and that’ll mean more interest in future projects. Good stories will keep on getting retold, and retooled, because there is still coin to be made from them. And, if an audience is still reacting to them a hundred years later, they must have something to say that no one has yet said better. Well… that or it’s just cheaper to work with things in the public domain.
Raggedyman spends most of his time in the Bunka Bunker watching old movies but he often has other thoughts to share.
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