What the Dickens
“Dickens could have been a comedy writer, his work is full of catch phrases that could work as mobile ring tones.” That’s what Andrew Davies thinks. Doyen of TV screen adaptation, he was in Cartagena as part of the British Council’s celebrations of Charles Dickens and the subject was ‘Bleak House.,” a Victorian court-room drama teeming with characters which serves as a warning – “never go to law.”
Peter Florence read the foggy opening of the novel in that Guinnessy, black velvet voice of his. Then we saw the intercut, fast-paced start of the telly series. Where the book dwells on detailing the scene, the small screen version cuts to the chase, gets straight in to the courtroom drama, horse and carriage tearing along, shot on two hand held cameras.
Former academic Davies starts the process of adapting with an innocent reading of the book, seeing which pictures come to mind. He likes driving around listening to audio versions of the books, likes having the prose read to him. “Every reader adapts the book he’;s reading.” Then he chops it up into chunks, finds out how many episodes it makes.
The director of ‘Bleak House’ had just been filming ‘Spooks’ the frenetic sci-fi series, so there was a lot of “Whoosh, whoosh!” as Davies puts it, with rapid cuts and frenetic editing.
Other writers have had the Davies treatment of course. Very, very successfully. That’s why he’s a doyen. He thinks that Jane Austen created perfect plots, with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ topping the list. He’s famous for adding oodles of sex, and pace, and brings out the narrative, hooking the viewer.
We saw a clip of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in the TV adaptation. It is steamy, all candlelit flesh and heavy breathing. It seduces the viewer with just a few teasing lines of dialogue. Davies talked about some of the scenes he made up – “the ones Jane Austen forgot to write.” He takes some liberties, but all in the service of television, which, obviously, has to have visuals.
He says he can genuinely express himself through adaptation, creating scenes which the actors and the audience think are in the book. That, he admits is a bit of an ego trip. He’s glad he was never asked to work on ‘Wuthering Heights’ as he’d make a mess of it. He’s glad he didn’t try Virginia Woolf. But he’ll have a go at pretty much anything.
Pasternak. Austen. Dickens. Davies.
All equally good writers.