In my early years of teaching, I used to collaborate with a colleague on adapting children's stories for performance in school. We always kept in mind the authentic voice of the author, only making those changes necessary for narrative to become dialogue and for the action to take place within a limited time. Even when we had a go at a musical adaptation of 'The Selfish Giant' the work obviously belonged to Oscar Wilde and not Butcher and Graham. I know that our audience never numbered more than a hundred but we felt the same responsibility towards our production as we would had we been writing for the London stage.
We saw in the recent production of Cranford that it is possible to make quite significant changes to a work, in this case three books, and still retain the integrity of the original. The same cannot be said of other television adaptations, where the behaviour of characters is changed, new characters and storyline are introduced and even, in some cases, the end of the story completely changed from that of the original book. Take, for instance, the recent Andrew Davies adaptation of Sense and Sensibility: much of the dramatic tension of the novel lies in the reader's ignorance of Willoughby's true nature and his connection with Colonel Brandon, yet Davies' adaptation opens with the seduction of Brandon's ward by Willoughby. Is this Andrew Davies improving on Jane Austen?
I'm sure that in a previous age, when honesty and integrity were quite commonplace virtues, programmes such as Lark Rise to Candleford would have been presented as having been 'based on an idea by Flora Thompson'. Then we would not expect to find a feckless Dawn French character, a benevolent squire with an unhappy wife or two communities pacing out the distance between hamlet and town in the book of the same name.
The role of the adapter is very different from that of the translator. I have been thinking a good deal about this since reading Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, translated by Sandra Smith. The book is so beautifully written that I wondered how much of that is attributable to the author and how much to the translator. Here is what Sandra Smith has to say about translating:
Translation is always a daunting task, especially when the translator has so much respect and affection for the author. It is also a creative task that often requires 'leaps of faith': a feeling for tone, sensing the author's intention, taking the liberty to interpret and sometimes to correct.I suppose I must brush up my rusty French and look to the original in order to make a real judgement, but my instinct tells me that this book is true to the author's intention. I am looking forward to reading more of Irene Nemirovsky's books, all translated by Sandra Smith: Fire in the Blood, Le Bal and David Golder are on my reading list for 2008.
I've been playing around with semantics all day: adaptation, interpretation, translation, transliteration. Then on to concepts and qualities: integrity, honesty, authenticity, leaps of faith and taking of liberties. I'm too lazy to read books in their original language but I want to know that the translator is trustworthy. I love costume dramas and I think the works of Dickens and Trollope, in particular, lend themselves to dramatisation but I want to recognise the characters and events portrayed. Perhaps there should be a Code of Conduct for those engaged in this work.