#Secondthoughts: Bowdler, Buchan, and Heinlein

For a long time, I thought that to bowdlerise something was to make it a bit smutty, which is ironic really.  Looking back, I probably thought it was linked to ‘bawdy’; it was quite a surprise when I found out what it really meant.  It would be tempting to think of Thomas Bowdler as a typical censorious Victorian, but in realty his main work occurred before Victoria ascended the throne.  It’s always tricky to be sure about the motivations of someone who lived two hundred years ago, especially when that person’s legacy is divisive.  There are those who would say that Bowdler ripped the guts out of Shakespeare, whereas apparently he saw himself as serving the family by providing a version of the plays that could be read to children.

Hold that thought.

*****

I was going to say that I’ve yet to come across a version of ‘the 39 Steps’ that I haven’t enjoyed.  This was based off the back of having listened to a radio version on the iPlayer the other day.  The Hitchcock film with Robert Donat is of course a thing of beauty and a joy for ever; and if you get a chance to see the stage play based on this version, then you are in for a comedic treat.  The Kenneth More version is not great cinematography, but hey, it’s Kenneth More.  The Robert Powell version has a lot of the energy of the book: more, in some respects, than the other versions.  The version that I really didn’t like was the 2008 Rupert Penry-Jones one.  The thing that all four film versions have is that they add a romance element to the story that isn’t part of the book.

Hold that thought.

*****

Robert Anson Heinlein is usually described as one of the Big Three, with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.  All three wrote a lot of stuff across their careers, some brilliant, some less so.  One novel that has been on my mind a lot recently is The Door Into Summer.  I think at least in part because I’m sure I have a copy somewhere, but seem to have lost it.  In the end, I was able to discover the original magazine version, where this novel was published in three parts, online.  I can’t remember what prompted the desire to reread this story, but it is actually quite a good yarn in many respects.  The main character does a bit of hopping through time, missing out most of the 70s, 80s and 90s twice over via “the long sleep”, a cryo-hibernation easy time-travel, and jumping back once using an energy intensive piece of unreliable and almost unbelievable tech.  The story has lots of standard Heinlein tropes, which I’m not going to go into too much detail about here.  The one that is most problematic is that the main character ends up marrying a former friend’s step-daughter, who starts the story about 20 years younger than the MC, but catches up a bit thanks to all the time-travelling malarky.  This bit leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth, as it feels like a fudge to get round what should really be a verboten relationship.   John W. Campbell is supposed to have said of Heinlein:

“Bob can write a better story, with one hand tied behind him, than most people in the field can do with both hands. But Jesus, I wish that son of a gun would take that other hand out of his pocket.”

That’s probably a fair description.

Hold that thought.

*****

Three very different writers – so what’s the connection?  Possibly none, but I started to wonder about what Bowlder was trying to achieve and what the effect is of changing text/stories, and the effect of an agenda: are the changes that were made 200 years ago still relevant today?  Is it possible to do some sort of reverse Bowlderism?

For example, if we look at Shakespeare, because we’re mainly talking about stage plays, the interpretation of certain directions, the staging, the actors’ take on characters, inflection, all these things can change the intent significantly.   A character who is borderline sympathetic can be made more or less personable by the acting, at least within the confines of the script.

Whilst a lot of Shakespear’s writing is deeply poetical, he has a repuation for being direct, blunt even, in his work.  Further, there is context to consider, all the little bits of current gossip that were built in for the audience of the time.  Words change meaning.  On the whole then, watching Shakespear can be much like watching traditional opera.  There’s a good chance you are not going to understand everything that is going on, unless you brush-up beforehand.  On that basis, tidying up the script, updating the language, making it a bit friendlier to a younger audience – surely that’s not a bad thing?

On the otherhand are there stories that should be revised to make them better?  Better for whom, you may say.  One of Shakespear’s most important plays has a relationship  between a girld and a boy of different ages.  An arguement that comes up from time to time is that it was different then.  Yes, it was, but that’s no reason not to take a good hard look and say, do you know what, it wasn’t OK then and it’s not OK now.  Let’s take that Heinlein story.  Ignoring the fact that it is slightly dated (it’s future is almost 20 years in our past!), it wouldn’t take a lot to tweak it to remove the objectionable bit – in the right hands you could probably change a very few references and one scene, perhaps a thousand or so words all told, and actually make a stronger story as a result.

I’m not sure how much the editor and the publisher really tried to change Heinlein’s work.  There were a few things that Heinlein got a bit over-excited about, but his work sold.  I suspect he would have just walked if people started getting too heavy-handed with the red pen.

And then, on the gripping hand, there are the stories like The 39 Steps: All four film versions are very different to the book, with added characters being the least of the issues.  Screenwriters sometimes seem to feel obliged to mess with the story, but at what point does it become too much?

In the modern world much is made of EDI: Equality , Diversity and Inclusion.  We need to make much of it, because we are not very good at it, but I saw an article recently that said that Monty Python wouldn’t be commisioned today, because, well, “six white Oxbridge men”.  Oh dear.

The 39 Steps is about a man on the run: does he really have to have a love interest? An EDI argument would be that there needs to be a woman in there.  What’s interesting is that if you looker at the earlier adaptations, the romantic foil is not just a pretty face, but generally holds their own in the story.  It’s the 2008 version where the woman needs to be seen to be independent of the man.

What do you think?  Are there stories that need to be rescued from some objectionable feature?  Are we in danger of homogenising our literature and screenplays by devising roll-calls of characters that need to be present in every story?

© David Jesson, 2018

 

 

 

Advertisements

#Secondthoughts: Where Eagles Dare

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

There are some phrases that just seem right.  They work.  They’re so good that they enter the population and almost become some kind of genetic memory.  These days we tend to call them memes and they get hacked about by anybody with access to a meme-generator, in order to illustrate a point.  I will freely admit to having done it myself once or twice.  But before the internet, before we knew they were memes, there were lines from books and films that became short hand for jokes, or action scenes, for heroism, or dark deeds.

Thirty years or so after the first time that I read “Where Eagles Dare”, and the famous radio call-sign exchange still brings back memories of Alastair McLean novels, and a slew of WWII films.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

Social Media can be a strange place.  You never quite know what will catch on.  By chance, I happened to notice that #WhereEaglesDare was trending on Twitter the other day, so I thought that I would have a quick look.  It turned out that the film was showing on some channel or another, and people were flagging it and then talking about.  The opening credits came in for a mention, and yes, they are pretty good.  I’d dispute that it is the best film ever, though.  The film has some great set pieces, but I’m going to go out on a limb, and say that it was miscast, and that the adaptation of the dialogue was not quite up to the mark.  I’d even suggest that it is worth remaking the film – Richard Burton, as Smith, is rather wooden, and Clint Eastwood, as Schaeffer, is…Clint Eastwood.  To his credit, at least he put a bit of effort into climbing the rope, instead of using a scissor lift…  a young Nathan Fillion might have been a good Schaeffer, I don’t know who the equivalent would be at the moment.  But I digress.

In any film, there are a number of things that need to come together, including the casting (and the on- and off-screen dynamic between the cast), the cinematography (including special effects), and the script.  In the case of a film adaptation, the casting is especially important, as is the script.  For fans of the book, if the writer did a good job then you will have a mental picture of the characters.  In terms of the dialogue to inform the script, you’d hope that it could just be picked up and plonked down as is, but of course there will be scenes that can’t be included – but you really need that line, yes that one there – and so the process of revising the script begins.

In terms of a film adaptation, whilst I love Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone and WED – all for different reasons – I’d argue that Where Eagles Dare is the best adaptation of the three.  But it also shares in one of the biggest frustrations that I have with the Lord of the Rings films: they messed up the humour.

When you think of Lord of the Rings, the inherent humour is probably not what springs to mind.  I will be the first to admit that we are not talking about a laff-a-minute, light-hearted read, but there is humour, albeit somewhat understated. The film adaptation, to my mind, makes the cardinal sin of rejecting the humour that Tolkien wrote into the book, and importing a totally unnecessary slap-stick element, usually at the expense of Gimli and the dwarfs.  I recently came across the term “Mary Sue” to describe a character who is improbably skilled at everything: in LOTR, the Elves, and in particular Legolas, become a race of Mary Sues, leaving the dwarfs to bumble along as the comedy country-bumpkins.  But that’s another essay.  Suffice it to say, that my view is that Legolas and Gimli were designed to be a balanced pairing in the author’s mind, and that there are all sorts of things that don’t work properly because the relationship between Gimli and Legolas is undermined.

So too, then, the balance between Smith and Schaeffer is not quite right in WED.  The humour is muted, the dialogue doesn’t sparkle.  Burton is, as I’ve said, a bit wooden – it almost feels like it should be one of his last performances, but it’s not; Burton died young, but worked for another 15 or so years after this film.  The book is a little more thoughtful, and doesn’t reduce the Germans to ciphers – at least, not all the time.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

And now for the kicker.  Having written all of the above, having assumed that the book came first, I’ve just discovered that McLean wrote the film first and then the book.  Apparently Eastwood didn’t like the original script and asked for fewer lines, which surely must be a rarity in the acting profession.  On the other hand, he got to do most of the action, so it probably worked out about even.

Even with that last minute shock revelation, I stand by the view that the book is better than the film, but perhaps now we need to say it is because McLean had the opportunity to polish things – and he didn’t have to worry about troublesome actors.  His characters would do as they were told.  He also had the opportunity to embellish some scenes and add depth – so for example the pilot who drops off the team and picks up the survivors gets to be a proper character rather than just an extension of the aircraft.

How about you?  Any films where the script/casting messed up a really neat book?  Any favourite books that got a good film treatment? Any films that fell flat even though they had an all star cast and the dialogue was straight off the page?

“Broadsword this is Danny Boy…Broadsword this is Danny Boy…Recieving”


© David Jesson, 2018