To Adapt or Not To Adapt

harry potterNorthern Lights

I am torn. This week I booked tickets to see the theatre production of Harry Potter, The Cursed Child. This is a collaboration between Rowling and another writer, Jack Thorne, set 19 years after the seventh Harry Potter and featuring Harry Potter’s son. And this week I also found out that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has been commissioned for television production. These books are major heavyweights in the industry – children’s literature at its very peak.

And initially I was happy about both these things.

Bringing children’s books to different media (be it, audio, or visual etc) is a good thing. Children’s books don’t receive enough media coverage in general, so any outing of them brings attention to the whole industry and has the potential for further discovery – promoting reading and re-reading. For die-hard fans, it can be a continuation of a much-loved character or setting – The Hunger Games is a case in point. The now annual ritual of a much-loved children’s book being turned into a Christmas animation is thrilling for children – this year it is to be Stickman, last year was Room on the Broom – I seem to remember too Lost and Found, by Oliver Jeffers, and of course Brigg’s The Snowman has long been a Channel 4 favourite.

Children’s authors in general (Rowling excepted) don’t make much money, so options for film or television work so that they can pursue their talent is no bad thing – I think most authors would agree. And of course who can deny that art is subjective – art is interpretation – so it is interesting to see how experimentation in different media can interpret a text.

However, there is a niggly voice in my head holding a warning sign. Would a bad version of a children’s book put children off reading that book? Would it put them off reading altogether? Does a good adaptation of a book put them off reading that book – one author told me recently that her child refused to read a certain series of books – because they wouldn’t live up to the image the child had seen on screen. That niggly voice becomes more audible.

Interestingly, Pullman has given his blessing to the television project, apparently saying that adaptations of his work have given much pleasure (His Dark Materials having been a well-received play at the National Theatre, although with substantial differences to the original text, and Northern Lights having been a film – optioned for a trilogy but yet to be completed). Pullman said recently that he thought certain television shows had demonstrated the ability of the medium to reach “depths of characterisation and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel.” I’m anticipating a hefty box set.

And yet, and yet. I am a purist. I don’t want my children (any children) to watch His Dark Materials on television before they read the books. I have let the children watch Harry Potter film 1, but they have not yet read further than book 4 – so will all their future imaginings be based on the film? Yes, I think they will. Hermione is forever foreshadowed by Emma Watson.

When I read a book I like to build the setting, the characters, the world, in my head – it is the basis of all reading. As I reader I feel I own the text – Roland Barthes, French thinker, agreed that the reader’s interpretation of the text – their impressions of it – are everything. However, that means that if the reader is a television producer – they too own the text!

If a text is interpreted well on the screen does that mean that it resembles the picture that the reader had in their head, except that surely we all have slightly different pictures in our minds? Maybe a screen version brings to light something not spotted upon reading the text – but then is that a failing of the reader when they read it, or the writer when they wrote it?

Personally, I can think of no screen interpretation of a book that I have liked better than the original text (other than maybe Charlie and Lola). My memory of Watership Down springs firmly from the film, but on re-reading, the book is far superior. The original film of Little Women resonates in my head for the characters’ pronunciation of ‘Marmie’, but it is to the book that I will always return – Jo March in my imaginings is far more rounded and complex than the film portrays – and the chapter entitled ‘Dark Days’ wrings far more emotion than the film.

And furthermore, when is it time to let a character rest? We have Harry Potter tweets and web updates, (in 2007 JK Rowling made the news when she outed Dumbledore as gay just after the publication of the final Harry Potter book, and in September of this year she informed twitter that Voldemort was pronounced with a silent final t). In fact, Twitter has received various updates to plot and character over the years – (although maybe not updates just a slow release of pre-worked out extras that most writers have scribbled down somewhere about their novels but they haven’t, for whatever reason, included in the final text). So an update for the reader, but not the writer.

We are a constant grazing audience of re-hashed, re-interpreted adaptations. Numerous theatre productions abound of popular picture books – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Gruffalo, Aliens in Underpants, The Cat in the Hat, I Want My Hat Back….I could go on. Although in every instance, the children who have accompanied me prefer those productions which stay truest to the original text. What is that telling us?

Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, numerous others have become brands rather than characters – taken far from their original text, twisted and manipulated. Look only to the Disney cartoons of the latter to see the extra characters added. When an author dies, they can no longer spin out the brand – but others can. Is this worse? Zadie Smith, ‘Fail Better‘, with her views on the writer’s very personality and moral character being central to their text, can’t be happy about the continuation of the text after an author’s death. But look at what modern writers have done with Bond, with Sherlock. At what point have we deviated so far from the author’s original intention that we have a new story altogether?

If I were a published fiction author, would I want to be as Charlotte Bronte, living in a time when her character lived solely in the original text? Or would I want to be a JK Rowling, issuing tweets with new character diktats, answering questions on plot, writing new chapters in their character’s life, and spinoff books, signing off on films, merchandise, and theme parks?

I am torn. As a reader, and as a writer.

As a parent though, I am simply mean: Read the book first. Watch the screen later.