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Lost (And Gained) In Translation

The pleasures and pitfalls of dramatization

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I’ve been writing radio and theatre dramatizations for years, usually working from prose fiction but, sometimes from films or even poems. Some of my own poems have had a second life as poetry-dramas and I’m about to start writing a hybrid piece that’s likely to include dramatized documentary — another kind of adaptation, I guess. So far, I’ve not tried it the other way round, reimagining a play as a poem or prose piece, for example, but never say never!

I’ve often asked myself why I don’t just stick to writing original stuff. Isn’t dramatization just a form of reinventing the wheel? Doesn’t a piece of writing find its natural form? If it’s a novel isn’t that because it’s meant to be a novel? What’s the point?

I’ve certainly sat through many dramatizations that I’ve hated, usually because I love the source material and can’t reconcile what I’m seeing or hearing with the vision I’ve internalised from the book. I guess that when we read a story our minds form pictures and often a strong sense of individual characters; we can be quick to say ‘That’s not right. S/he doesn’t look or sound like that!’ And if we know a book backwards, we might be outraged by changes to its plot. I’ve been one of those outraged people myself. But if a dramatization is too literal or faithful, we might ask ‘Why did they bother?’ I’m thinking of the overly reverential adaptation which appears to have hardly dared tamper with its source. I’ve seen too many ‘version(s) for theatre’ that feel like the book has just been plonked onto the stage with no apparent recognition that here are two radically different forms working in different ways. I’ve been guilty of the terrible adaptation myself. In awe of a particular novel or film, I’ve sometimes found it hard not to allow my love to turn into a constraining reverence which in turns leads to an adaptation that’s dull as ditchwater.

So why on earth do it? I’ll get the practical, even cynical, reason out of the way first. A screen, radio or theatre ‘version’ of a well-known novel can often sell better than a new piece of drama, especially if the creators (including actors) of that drama are not well known. Audiences and listeners will often invest in a title they know, a book they’ve loved, rather than taking a punt on something and someone they’ve never heard of. This is perhaps one reason why so many adaptations fill our screens, theatres and airwaves.

Sometimes, though, there’s a fantastic story that can be told in many ways. Sometimes changing the form can help an audience to experience a text in a new way. Sometimes a fresh version of an old story can vividly bring it up to date, make it speak to ‘now’. And sometimes an existing text can be the springboard for a writer to create something entirely new — a response to the original or a complete re-imagining of it. After all, isn’t most writing a kind of adaptation or transmutation? Life into literature or drama, fragments of our own stories reimagined as fiction, fiction presented as fact, other people’s voices inhabiting a poem… Writing as metaphor surely connects to the concept of adaptation – something illuminated by being presented as something else – and isn’t everything we write in a sense stolen or borrowed, transformed, translated onto the page or into the mouth of a performer?

That’s not to say that writing a dramatization involves the same process as writing from scratch. For me, it’s a different kind of problem-solving. What works in prose fiction rarely works as drama. What works for radio isn’t the same as what works for theatre. The ‘head start’ that adaptation gives the adapter is, obviously, that there is a text already there from which to work. I think I started writing adaptations in part to get away from the tyranny of the blank page. But what to do with that text? How ‘faithful’ or ‘radical’ a version of it do I want to make? If it’s for radio, how long is the ‘slot’ for which it’s been programmed? If it’s prose to drama, how many performers can we have? And is there a budget for a composer? Before any of these questions, though, I would always need to know why I wanted to do it — how does it excite me, what makes me think I can make it feel new?

I guess I’m wary of the ‘gimmicky’ dramatization that strains to be ‘clever’ or ‘different’ but some of the best that I’ve seen and heard have made bold interventions into the source material, thrilling, distinctive interventions that have either illuminated or made me rethink my reading of the original. As I’m writing this I’m remembering one of my favourites: Rashdash’s Three Sisters at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, a witty, playful, musical offering that manages to ask all of Chekhov’s big questions whilst adding its own: what are the classics for? Why do the men get all the best lines? What can we take from this play if we’re remaking it for the twenty-first century?

The process of dramatization – or I’d call it adaptation if the source material is already in a dramatic form – varies for me depending on the kind of work I’m making, but it always starts with several readings or viewings of the piece I’m working from. Some years ago I made two dramas for BBC Radio 3 that were versions of the 1920s silent movies The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu.(Doing a silent movie on the radio sounds like a rather strange joke, but they were actually two of the most exciting radio projects of my career to date.) The process there was very much about watching the films – that I have always loved – over and over, as well as reading critical work about them and their cultural contexts.

If I’m working from a text, the book will be battered and broken by the time I’m finished; I write all over it, mark pages, read it so many times it’s falling apart. Then I kind of throw it away because the time has come to make a different text, one that has to work in its own medium and one that I am writing. It has to become mine and it has to become its metamorphosised self, a new text or performance, living in its own skin.

When I was starting out, I was commissioned to write a fairly ‘traditional’ version of David Almond’s novel Secret Heart for theatre. The process was a crash course. I learned, for example, that narration in live performance is usually ‘anti-dramatic’. It can work brilliantly in some kinds of theatre, as long as the writer understands what it does, but it can be a way of avoiding dramatizing at all, simply putting the novel on stage. I learnt that drama is always present tense and has to unfold through dramatic action — which is not how much prose fiction works. I remember to this day some of the panic and also the ‘light bulb’ moments as I worked on the text:

There’s a really strong ‘voice’ and ‘spirit’ in the book that I want to keep — but much of it resides in the narration. Help!

Oh no — I’ve realised that the story isn’t really told through dialogue. 

Dammit! The bits of direct speech in the novel sound really weak when they’re not shored up with description!

Yikes! The plot works in the novel but doesn’t work at all in a drama. Too many characters! Too many strands! 

It suddenly feels like it starts in completely the wrong place!

These days I usually start by finding a visual or sound world — a texture, almost, that I feel is the one I want to achieve. I sometimes listen to music, or reference other work that I’ve seen, or even look at fine art to capture something of the ‘feel’ of what I want to make. I have to see and hear a world that I believe will work dramatically. Everything else springs from this.

A final word. I know some writers would disagree, but I’ve always felt a kind of debt of honour to the creator of the original text. A responsibility. I can’t imagine writing from a book I don’t respect or feel completely uninterested in. It’s a bit, for me, like creating characters: I have to love them all, even if they do terrible things. I’m not here to judge them. And I don’t want to obliterate the book I’m dramatizing; I want to keep its spirit. Sometimes, it can feel appropriate to take this to quite an extreme, to almost write myself out of the picture. When I made a version of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, one of my favourites by one of my all-time top five authors, I was thrilled and daunted, especially when I got to work with Sophia – her niece – the Sophia of The Summer Book. Thankfully, we all agreed the book needed a very light-touch dramatization. This was not about me. I was not trying to leave my mark on it at all. That’s sometimes how I like it. Invisible me.

Amanda Dalton is a poet and playwright. Her poetry collections How to Disappear and Stray are published by Bloodaxe. She has had over 25 original plays, dramatizations and poetry dramas produced by BBC Radio; her theatre writing includes commissions with Manchester’s Royal Exchange and Sheffield Theatres.

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