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Do Adaptations Show Us Extra Meanings?

A screen shot from the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice showing Bingley, Jane, Darcy, and Elizabeth at the altar

Screen shot from Pride And Prejudice, copyright © 1995 BBC.

In an article about the art of adaptation, which focused on Brooklyn, writer Shastri Akella said that adaptations that are very different to their source material can make us look at other meanings that might be found in the text. This she wondered after having thought over the concept of bringing to visual life characters from literature.

I found this an interesting idea. My initial thought was to wonder how seeing other meanings in a book thanks to a visual production would work – is it possible? I was too caught up in the idea that films can never be as good as the book. Away from that, I think Akella is on to something, however today I’m going to look at adaptations as a whole rather than adaptations that are necessarily different – I’m not against differences, but I do gravitate towards adaptations that stay close to the books.

An adaptation is a single person’s (or multiple people depending on where the idea to adapt originates and goes) idea about a book. The film or television series (radio series as well?) is thus a detailed explanation and interpretation of someone’s reaction, their own visualisations of characters, location, and meanings that make up the book. It is as valid, in an objective, general, sense, as anyone else’s reactions and interpretations (supposing the director or whoever it is has read the book, of course), it’s just that putting it on screen for all to see is going to suggest, if unintentionally, that it’s a fairly definitive interpretation and a correct one, a valid one, an informed one. It is valid – in essence it’s an interpretation as good or clever, and so on, as any other, the difference is simply in the ability to put it on screen.

So, due to this, it gives the viewer (who I’m considering has read the book) an easily accessible way to discover another’s thoughts on the story, albeit that screen time is not always enough to provide the full picture. So is an adaptation that seems or is, objectively, very different to the source material useful? Unless there are reasons for the difference that move away from interpretation – say those times when directors modify aspects of the story for their own reasons (the recent Sanditon was sexed up) then the adaptation is going to fulfill Akella’s idea of this purpose of providing other meanings.

In her forthcoming book about Darcy (disclaimer – I’m reading it for review), Gabrielle Malcolm notes the 1995 BBC production of Pride And Prejudice wherein Darcy narratives the letter he sends Elizabeth about his history with Wickham against a backdrop of visual flashbacks that enable the viewer to put visuals to the letter’s content. This, Malcolm notes, was done to better infer to viewers Darcy’s better side. Austen doesn’t include the background itself – the words are all there is; whilst the choice of the production team doesn’t move in a wholly different direction to the book, it does include things that aren’t in the book (the ‘wet shirt’ scene is, of course, another) that perhaps provide slightly different insights about Darcy that you don’t get from Austen, making Darcy more accessible to the 20th century viewers, watching the series almost 200 years after the book was published.

Staying on the subject of Austen’s book – it’s in my head at the moment – the 2005 film better showed me why debate surrounds the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet, the changes in dialogue and chance to see characters in reality making a difference. On one side of the debate are those who believe Mr Bennet treats, and has likely always treated, Mrs Bennet poorly, enough that she was always going to become a bit over the top. On the other side are those that see Mrs Bennet as the problem – over dramatic, overbearing – and Mr Bennet the product of having it in his life so many years as to be resigned to it. I’m not sure I have an outright opinion on this – Donald Sutherland’s acting leads me to ponder the second side but that’s his influence, not Austen’s, so I’m not inclined to draw a line in the sand. I’m also not sure that Austen had thoughts either way; I think she was thinking more about what would be funny. Mrs Bennet is only a little more dramatic than the characters she is thought to be inspired by – certainly Maria Edgeworth’s Lady Delacour from Belinda, who is less ‘nervous’ but actively neglectful and deceptive struck me, upon reading about her, as a likely influence for Austen, with Mrs Bennet being inspired by Lady Delacour but ultimately being a lot nicer and unaware rather than deliberately dramatic.

There are numerous other possible influences, too, with melodrama being ‘in’ around that time. Austen was responding to her culture, to the overblown stereotypes of those who wrote a little before her time. But add a couple of hundred years to her publications and understandably a changed society questions her characters. There are far fewer limitations on what we can say and who is ‘allowed’ to have an opinion.

I do think adaptations – the ‘right’ adaptations? – can help us understand the source material better. They can definitely make us appreciate it more and they create debate, discussion. They keep our love for the work alive. It can take some getting used to when it comes to changes made or, more often, it takes some time getting used to another reader’s imagination if it differs enough from yours, but they can be useful.

What are your thoughts on the values of adaptation?

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance

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Small book. Big message.

Publisher: Penned In The Margins
Pages: 72
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-05852-2
First Published: 1st October 2018
Date Reviewed: 11th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

The Perseverance is a magnificent collection of poetry. Full of variation in method, the themes of racial identity and identity as a person who is deaf, together with the social perceptions of both, the book offers a wealth of examples of difference between stereotype and reality, reworkings and reclamations of misinterpretations and ignorance, in a deceptively small number of pages.

Whilst Antrobus’ poems share just a few themes between them, you’d be wrong to think that subjects are similar. Umbrella-wise, they are, but to see the poems as coming under a couple of umbrellas would be to miss the point. The ideas of discrimination and prejudice don’t by themselves, as we know, infer how much is actually going on behind the scenes, as Antrobus’ collection brilliantly shows.

This is a collection about the poet himself – his family, his experiences and thoughts – but they will speak to many. His small studies of people’s perceptions of his mixed-race self and heritage and his explanations of how it feels to be treated as lesser then because he can’t hear, which will resonate with those who’ve suffered similar experiences as well as those with other disabilities and conditions, are profound. They are needed.

The first poem, called Echo and split into a few verses, each introduced by an illustration in BSL, combines and compares Catholicism with moments in Antrobus’ experience. It looks at how a lack of sound is so often equated to otherness, before moving onto other questions and situations in Antrobus’ childhood, the days before his parents realised he couldn’t hear them.

In Jamaican British, the poet looks at the two branches of his racial heritage and the way difference is perceived, this at a time when he’s seeking to find his identity:

They think I say I’m black when I say Jamaican British
but the English boys at school made me choose: Jamaican, British?

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.
Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British. (p. 25)

Then there is Dear Hearing World, an absolutely stunning piece of writing that looks at the social treatment of deafness in general. It may prove very validating. From page 37:

I call you out for refusing to acknowledge
sign language in classrooms, for assessing
deaf students on what they can’t say
instead of what they can, […]

Miami Airport, a poem full of white space that tells you everything else the words themselves do not, is based around a particularly alarming case of ‘you don’t look deaf’ whilst the redaction and response to Ted Hughes’ poem about a school for deaf children is profound as much for the redaction (it deletes Hughes’ poem in its entirety) as it is for Antrobus’ response where the present-day poet looks at Hughes’ lack of ability to see the students, both literally and metaphorically, taking away from Hughes both a human sense and his wholly inaccurate interpretation. (You don’t have to have read Hughes’ poem to understand Antrobus’ response, though you may wish to.)

There are no half measures in this collection, and just as important as the words and language are the line breaks and that use of white space, the emptiness often saying just as much as the words.

The Perseverance is just incredible. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review; the book is on the 2019 Young Writer of the Year shortlist.

Julia Armfield – Salt Slow

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Short periods of the paranormal.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 189
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-529-01256-9
First Published: 28th May 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

A girl with a skin condition grows more and more different to everyone around her; in a city people start to awaken to Sleeps – their sleeping self – and find they can stay awake all the time, the ghostly beings following them; a stepmother’s adoption and humanisation of a wolf signals her stepdaughter’s decent into animalism.

Salt Slow is a stunning collection of short stories that differ in their subjects but share an eerie quality. All the stories are about women, with men featuring in only a few.

This is a collection that is from start to finish absolutely brilliant. Every one of the stories makes for a good read, studies of ideas and playings with extreme versions of everyday occurrences that are a literary delight – to be sure this isn’t a fun read in the usual sense (it’s far too weird for that) but the literary experience is wonderful.

A lot of this has to do with Armfield’s choice of which angle to take. The stories balance well morals, with a starting point that makes the story easy to understand; this is to say that whilst you’ll want to pay attention anyway, the collection is one that’s very accessible. This in turn adds to the enjoyment of it, the ease at which each story moves to the next; whilst there are few shared specific subjects, you can read the collection as the well-planned series it is.

When we were younger, our mother told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities; ghosts in office chairs and office bathrooms, hot and cold running ghosts on tap (p. 24).

The first story, Mantis, where a girl finds friends and seeming support enough but still a pull of something else more dark and unarguably paranormal, introduces this whole concept. But it’s perhaps in the second story, The Great Awake, which looks at the idea of our twenty-first century attentions pulled in every direction 24 hours a day that the concept is solidified. It’s hard to call any one story better than the others, such is the strength of the book, but of meanings and relatability, The Great Awake is perhaps the best, Armfield’s paranormal expression of something that is widely known and studied bringing with it, for all its fictional aspects, the very real truth behind this particular reality. Another standout, Formally Feral, looks at the anthropomorphism of animals – in its extremes, of course – and offers a look at how animals can be just as aware, juxtaposing where a wolf takes on the parenting for a child who is meant to follow suit with her parent’s strange choices and decisions pertaining to siblings.

Salt Slow‘s offering is long-term; whilst the book may have the most impact the first time around, there is plenty to take from it on subsequent readings where you can pick your favourites and delve into them more. The themes of identity – both the basic sense of self, and in relation to others – the themes of relationships, and the various concepts intrinsic to them (as well of those that are intrinsic in the sense of being away from them), and possible effects of religion, are a joy to discover. Armfield’s collection both sits well alongside others and carves a place all of its own, at once a great new work in the genre and a fantastic voice completely unique. It’s weird and wonderful and utterly worth it.

I received this book for review; the book is on the 2019 Young Writer of the Year shortlist.

Today’s podcast

Tune in with Orlando Ortega-Medina and me as we discuss celebrity fictional reincarnation, writing short stories that don’t have messages, and working with ideas that could – if misinterpreted – look like something else.

If you can’t use the embedded player above or want to access the purchase links, click here to go to the hosting site. The podcast is now also available on Spotify.

What Is The Impact Of The Amount Of Time Between Your First And Second Read On The Latter Read?

A photograph of an open book with a watch laying on the page

Having continued to re-read, discovering more about the texts, I found myself wanting to look into this whole process further. The books I’ve been reading are on a shortish line – there are those I first read in the earlier years of my blogging (every book so far has been a ‘first read whilst blogging’ book), and those from only a year or two ago. On paper, it’s not much – the longest gap is 7 years – but when you read a lot that’s a fair amount of time. And in the context of being a reader, it’s more than enough time for changes to occur, specifically to your reader self.

I’ve pondered over whether the gap between first read and re-read has any particular merit in regards to amount of time, and in saying ‘gap’ I mean both the factual gap of time and the gap in relation to how many books have been read in the meantime; the more books you get through, the more you’re likely to forget ones further back, an understandable drawback of avid reading. (That, I think, is something that can be lived with.)

When it comes to the question of whether being able to remember less or more of the book makes for a better re-reading experience, I don’t think there’s a right answer. Not being able to remember – and this can, as noted, happen no matter how long ago (or not so) you first read the book – means simply that you’re going to enjoy your re-read in a different way. It might take a bit more time for you to ‘get back’ to where you might have been had you remembered, but that’s not a bad thing. Whilst being able to remember a lot means your further appreciation of the book – all those things you didn’t notice the first time – might happen sooner, not remembering the content doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And of course remembering the book – most likely the story, themes, and any impression the characters made on you – may well cause you to need a bit more time to get into the book again due to the chance you wonder why you’re re-reading it right then. (By this I mean you wonder in general – ‘why am I reading this again when I’ve already read it?’)

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My present experience of this pertains to Samantha Sotto’s Before Ever After, which I started a couple of days ago. I remembered I loved it; I had the benefit of having reviewed it (though my review, in 2012, seems to me now incredibly amateur and lacking in literary context); and I remembered the basic plot and my liking of Sotto’s hero. But I didn’t remember that the author started her book in the present, and I didn’t remember the character of Paulo, the young man who arrives at 26-year-old Shelley’s front door to tell her that her husband, who died a couple of years previously in his early 30s, is his grandfather and managing a restaurant on the other side of the world. (Yes, it’s as good as it sounds.)

And – to my shame, right now – I have had this book on my favourites list ever since I read it.

My re-read of Montgomery’s The Blue Castle gave me a completely different feeling for the book, enough that I wondered if I shouldn’t write a new review. (I opted for a Reading Life post.) In brief, my first read had me me laughing, my re-read had me looking at the poignancy and dysfunction. I laughed very little.

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This moves us to the way we can change as readers. We change as a whole – our reading preferences change, we read differently, we’ve got a lot more reading behind us to inform new reads – but I’m thinking specifically on a per-book basis: we often change in the context of being a reader of that book, whichever book is currently in question. My second read of The Barrowfields showed me the progress I’d made by the way of reading more classics and in general knowledge of other classics. My time in-between first and second read – a year and several months, not long really – allowed me during the second read to understand and often be simply able to note more literary references than I had that first time, and, in so doing, I was more aware of the idea that the best way (for me) to read the book that second time was to look up anything I came across that I didn’t know, no matter whether it struck me as important or not.

This, then, is why ‘amount of time’ is and has to be a malleable concept when it comes to re-reads. It’s the amount of time in the context of you, of your self as a reader, your reading background, and so on. It’s also not always related to how much you enjoyed the book that first time, in fact I’d argue that loving a book so completely can make you forget the details sooner. It’s all too easy to think that because you loved a book so much, you’re never going to forget it. The only definite, I reckon, is that you’re unlikely to forget the experience of reading it and your feelings at that time.

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I don’t know if I ‘need’ to read The Blue Castle again – I probably will but it’ll be for the same reason I re-read it earlier this year: the simple enjoyment of it. I’ve identified a likelihood of ‘needing’ to read The Barrowfields again, in a few years time, perhaps, to see how much more I might enjoy it, to see how much newly accessible content there is for me to take away. This of course circles back to the idea of there possibly being a limited amount to take.

There is obviously no real way – one might use the buzzword ‘organic’ – to measure the effect of the passage of time between reads. You’d have to erase the book from your memory, and selectively at that, keeping some of it back, but it is something I’d like to keep in mind as I continue what has become a real pleasure – re-reading what I’ve loved.

I’ve always worried about the fact that a re-read necessarily means one less new read in your time, but when done right – and again, that’s subjective – it’s incredibly valuable.

What are your thoughts as to time on this subject?

Samantha Sotto – A Dream Of Trees

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“A dream is not reality, but who’s to say which is which?” – Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking-Glass (quoted by Sotto).

Publisher: (self published)
Pages: 326
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-081-78019-7
First Published: 30th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 4th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

Aiden sits down in his hotel room’s chair and waits to die. Instead, the door opens and a Japanese woman walks in. She tells him she’s here to take him to his ‘rooms’, places he must visit before his soul can pass on. It’s unbelieveable, but he starts to trust her as she tells him to look over to the chair where his double sits; he has left his body. Meanwhile, the lady, Shiori, knows how incredible it all seems – she’s not sure why she is in the position she is and longs for the short periods of time she gets to spend in a greenhouse; rather that than these visits to those who are dying. But for now it is Aiden she has come to see and she must get him through however many doors will exist for him to pass through.

A Dream Of Trees is an exceptional book about what could happen between life and death and how we treat each other when times are hard. Somewhere between fantasy and magical realism, the novel offers an experience you will not easily forget.

This book is stunning. In a move away from time traveling and road trips, for her third novel Sotto has turned to a subject that is very moving and ever relate-able, with threads particularly relevant to our present day, her choices for the various characters and scenes up-to-the-minute. The writing is a delight, word choice and general detailing very effective. There are a number of proof-reading errors but – and this is, to me, all credit to the strength of the book – they don’t matter. Sotto’s story and her message are strong enough that it withstands them.

The novel transcends beliefs in regards to religion and faith. Concerned with the in-between and unfinished business, questions and thoughts aligned with religious ideas feature but are part of the wider spiritual whole, for example at least one person questions whether Shiori is an angel. There is a look at the afterlife in the sense of people waiting for others.

The characterisation is very good but regardless this is more of a theme-led book. The characters’ purpose is to look at questions we have and troubles that occur in our world. Situations such as a person who has suffered from poor treatment from peers, the ripple of impact years later, and the realisation of the perpetrator that what went on affected their victim far more than they thought. So in exploring the life/death moment, the novel revolves around the idea of unfinished business – having or not having it and how that might affect a soul going forward. It covers accidents, murder, and natural causes of death. It covers acceptance, disbelief, and simple incomprehension.

And around it all is the mystery of Shiori, of who she is and why she has such a job of leading souls. The narrative is open to predictions – you’ll likely have your own idea of what or who she is but there are many possibilities and no matter whether or not you were on the right track does not make a difference to your experience; when it comes to the answer it’s a surprise, a powerful one. At the same time there is the diary of days passed without an understanding of what’s going on that adds to the mystery whilst, ironically, adding to your own understanding. Sotto puts our relationships with each other as paramount, showing how important love and forgiveness are.

A Dream Of Trees is… well, it’s hard to say exactly how brilliant this book is; it is a book for everyone. I would pick your moment carefully – this may not (or may in fact be) the right time if you’re in a bad place – but I would most certainly recommend it. It’s an important subject and set of considerations.

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