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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?

 
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?’)

Book Cover

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.

Book Cover

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.

Book Cover

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?

 
The 2019 Young Writer Of The Year Shortlist

A photograph of the shortlist

To me, now, it wouldn’t feel like November without this. The shortlist was announced yesterday following a record number of submissions – over 100 books were sent in this year. Awarded to a writer under the age of 35, the prize was won last year by Adam Weymouth for Kings Of The Yukon, a non-fiction narrative. He was joined on the shortlist by Imogen Hermes Gowar, Fiona Mozley, and Laura Freeman. The award was won in 2017 by Sally Rooney, 2016 by Max Porter, and 2015 by Sara Howe.

This year’s authors are Raymond Antrobus for the poetry collection The Perseverance, which won the Rathbones Folio Prize earlier this year; Julia Armfield for short story collection Salt Slow (one of her stories won The White Review Short Story Prize last year); Yara Rodrigues Fowler for the novel Stubborn Archivist, a Desmond Elliott Prize longlister; and Kim Sherwood for the novel Testament which has won the Bath Novel Award. This year’s winner will be announced on 5th December.

Due to the number of submissions this year, there are five judges – alongside The Sunday Times’ Andrew Holgate are Kate Clanchy, Victoria Hislop, Gonzalo C Garcia, and Nick Rennison.

This year’s shadow panel of bloggers are Anne Cater, David Harris, Linda Hill, Clare Reynolds, and Phoebe Williams. Each year’s shadow panel have so far awarded a different author than the one who won officially so it’ll be interesting to see if this year’s group do the same. Perhaps I’m biased – okay, I am – but I do look forward most to the bloggers’ choices.

I’m particularly happy to see Antrobus on the shortlist; whilst I’m yet to read his collection in full I’ve read examples from it and read a fair amount about the poet’s work and background, which I mentioned in the post linked above about his Rathbones Folio win.

Have you read any of the books? What’s your opinion on the shortlist?

 
On My Present Re-Reading And Discoveries Therein

A photograph of Hever Castle's lake with boats

Over the last month I’ve been being doing a fair amount of re-reading. I’ve re-read various books before but never in quick succession as I am now. It’s been a pleasure.

I’ve found re-reading to be quicker than the first read even when reading the book in full, not skipping anything just because you’ve read it before. I think it’s a ‘thing’ anyway, but it’s perhaps been intensified due to my relative generally slower reading speed; I’m re-reading these books faster than I normally would read, which is both obvious and a big motivation, and it doesn’t seem to be necessarily reflective of how I read them – I’m faster whether I’m reading a chapter at a time or spending the whole evening with the book.

It’s definitely true that you notice more when re-reading; it’s a well-known concept applicable to all kinds of things but is nevertheless still surprising when it happens. Without needing to concentrate so much on what’s happening (or on character development in cases where plot is less important) – and even if you often notice ‘small things’ anyway – it’s surprising how much you miss the first time. I’ve found this to be the case no matter whether notes from the previous reading of the book were detailed or not. And if the lifelong interests of academics of an author and/or their work is anything to go by, the more times you re-read the more you pick up. I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a line of sorts for each book (because it couldn’t be applied equally across the board) where to go over it, to re-read more than that number, would finally present nothing new. It’s an interesting thing to consider, partly because I suspect that the answer is that no, there isn’t a line, or that if there is, it would indeed take a great many re-reads. More likely, I think, is the chance that there will always be something new to find, just that the somethings will become less and less interesting, less relevant, and at some point understandably too minor to bother with.

I think it’s also true that you notice more during a re-read regardless of when you first read the book. No matter when it was you, will remember more as you go along, the only difference being the amount you remember, the time it takes you to remember whilst re-reading, and the clarity of your memories.

Reading with hindsight allows you to see more of the writing process. You know where such and such a thread is heading so you can enjoy the journey the author takes to get there, not unlike the way the author must have found it when writing. Likewise, you’re more aware of author context and/or background context in the book.

I found I enjoyed the books even more. And it does help to know in advance that you’ll most definitely enjoy reading it/them, it lessens any tendencies to browse before choosing. Whilst any twists will not be new – you’re not going to get quite the same experience – coming back to a book you loved ensures an easy, happy, read.

What benefits do you find in re-reading?

 
On Wanting Another Book As Awesome As The One You’ve Just Finished

A photograph of the Arabian room at Cardiff Castle

That slight feeling of sadness after you’ve finished a great book, it’s over. When that happens it’s tempting to want to find another book just like it; even when you’ve reading plans to continue you can still have that wish.

Sometimes it’s easy – pick up the sequel. There’s a chance – sometimes fairly big – that the sequel won’t live up to the book you’ve read, but it’s the best chance of reading more of the same that there is. Other times the author may have written another book with the same atmosphere. Lesser times but still significant enough, another author in the same genre or with books set at the same time (for example if it’s a historic novel) may provide a similar reading experience. Recommendations are great here, particularly as people tend to specify what is and isn’t the same.

The thing that interests me in a literary way, though, is those times it isn’t easy to find another book that’s similar, which includes times when you can find one similar but it takes time and during that time you’ve ‘recovered’ from the ‘need’ (though that is a fair alternative in itself). I find it interesting that the process of reading a great book and being unable to replicate the experience for whatever reason can lead to a slump. Perhaps it’s because I’m not as avid a film watcher as I am a reader, but I don’t find the same process in the context of films as powerful. Nor music, although I love music and the right song can be a stunning experience.

Sometimes TV series can produce a similar feeling, which makes me wonder how much is down to length and time invested. In books, a book can be shorter than, well, a tome, and still produce the same result because of how much relative time and attention it uses. It’s generally easier to watch a TV series than to read a book no matter the genre of the book as it requires less attention; all the imagination has been done for you. A short book might not cause the same feeling as a longer one due to time invested, but I’d say it’s more likely to cause it than a film.

I think it’s fascinating that a good book and the resulting wish to read more – which a re-read won’t do – can cause a slump. We talk about good books being the pinnacle. We talk about average books causing a slump, burnout causing a slump, and the daunting nature of the anticipation of a good book causing a slump. But the aftermath of a great book can be a slump. (Of cause a great book can also put off a slump, but that’s not the topic here.)

Looking at the times I’ve had this problem in the past, it relates most often to times when I’ve been able to give the great book not only the literal attention but the physical space, that is to say when I’ve set myself up for an evening of reading, for example, rather than just happening to have reading time. This often leads to associations which, I suppose, play their own role – ‘when I’m at the beach I’m going to get my book out and read’, ‘I’m making a cup of tea on this particularly bright February afternoon and am going to read this book because it’s getting great and I want to enjoy it’. That second one is something I’m still musing on, 9 months later.

How do you handle this situation?

 

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