Malcolm Bradbury

On Being Adapted

If, as for obvious reasons I did, you happened to turn on your television sets during January and watched the BBC-2 adaptation, by Christopher Hampton, of The History Man, and if, as for obvious reasons I had, you happened to know the novel itself, then you might well have had some thoughts about the nature of the adaptation, and perhaps about the entire process by which the elements of work in one medium turn into the elements of a work in quite another. A number of the reviewers rightly noted the sharp differences between the book and the television version, and the differences between the impression given in each of the central character, Howard Kirk; they observed the difficulty of translating a very ironic book, one however told largely through dialogue and dramatisation, to the television set and the sitting room. Writers don’t usually comment on these matters – partly because many of the books adapted for television are by authors no longer with us, and are beyond consultation, partly because many more are by writers for whom the story itself is the crucial thing, rather than the specific medium chosen for its telling. But in the present case, where what I think of as a very written and novelish novel was adapted with, I believe, very great success by what I think of as a leading playwright, then it does seem worth offering some thoughts on being adapted.

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