Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: From Novel to Play: Adaptation for the Theatre

Are adapted novels always second best to plays? I hope not, because there is an awful lot of it about. Some of the biggest commercial theatrical hits of recent years from War Horse to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Matilda have made the journey from fiction to theatre. Significant companies such as Forced Entertainment and Complicité, who might once have never contemplated using a novel as source material, have embraced adaptation. Although such companies seldom use traditional cut and paste methods, which has often led to adaptation being seen as a lesser art form.

Adaptation is a tradition which stretches back hundreds of years. Charles Dickens’ novels had barely been published before they started appearing on the stage, often in pirated versions, such was the audience demand. Then, as now, audiences are often drawn to a title that is familiar to them, which is why theatres are keen to programme adaptations. They see them as less of a box office risk than an original play.

Although, of course, it depends on what you mean by original. Look further back to Shakespeare and you will find a playwright who regularly plundered existing prose stories as his source material. But nobody describes Shakespeare’s plays as ‘adaptations’. That’s because he did what all great adaptors do, which is to employ an imaginative transformation. At its best, adaptation is not an act of creative vandalism but creative regeneration.

Even so, adaptation has seldom found favour with the critics. Shows which have gone on to become legendary including David Edgar’s version of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, which premiered at the RSC in 1980, and the musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1985) were greeted with disdain. One critic even wondered out loud whether any “unarguably great novel” has “actually been improved by adaptation?”

Well, actually, yes, I can think of some. Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s musical version of Matilda is an improvement on Roald Dahl's novel, because it gives its young heroine more agency. Shared Experience’s 1994 version of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss transcended the novel not least in the way it was able to give physical manifestation to suppressed emotion and internalised thought.

Rather than assuming that adaptation is always second best, I would suggest that some of the most radical theatre productions of the last 50 years began as novels and stories, including Steven Berkoff’s ground-breaking Metamorphosis, Emma Rice’s The Red Shoes, Katie Mitchell’s Waves, Simon McBurney’s and Kirsty Housley’s The Encounter and Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz.

The work of some significant directors including Mike Alfreds, Sally Cookson (Jane Eyre) and Melly Still (Coram Boy and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend) is primarily focussed on adaptation. In Cookson’s case, they are created through a devising process rather than beginning with a script, which immediately distances them from their literary origins. Cookson’s brilliant 2014 version of Jane Eyre is not a mere filleting of the novel but something quite textured and new, always about tone and texture and what is bubbling beneath the narrative.

What marks all of the works cited above is that they avoid the literary and the literal, which mars so many stage versions of novels and leads to what Charles Isherwood once described in the New York Times as “dehydrated and reconstituted Readers Digest versions of literature denuded of the distinctive authorial voice and imaginative scope that gave them their status as memorable, sometimes life-altering works of art.”

I suspect that one of the reasons why adaptation is no longer simply a poor relation is because British and US theatre-making has changed so much over the last 25 years. It has become so much more multifaceted and ‘total’ that books are no longer just being turned into plays. Instead, they are the springboard to create an original theatrical experience using every theatrical possibility, including technology. The Encounter, inspired by Petru Popescu’s book about an encounter between a photographer and a lost Amazonian tribe, takes us right inside the head of somebody wandering the Amazon, using binaural headphone technology.

There is increasing recognition that attempting to dramatize a novel is almost always doomed. As Sebastian Faulks – whose best-known novel Birdsong has made the journey from page to stage – once observed, trying to transpose from one medium to another is like “trying to turn a painting into a sculpture.” But once you accept that, you must also recognise that the experience of reading is one of quiet contemplation, whereas the experience of watching in the theatre is loud and communal, and the two can never be the same. There is room for something thrilling as the two forms collide and smash into each other head-on.

Jeff James, who adapted Jane Austen’s Persuasion for the Royal Exchange in 2017, told The Stage that:

I’m working on the understanding that the novel is a beautiful work of art and adapting it to the stage – however you do it – is doing a violence to the original artwork. There isn’t a non-violent way of doing it, so it’s owning that the way the adaptation works is really focusing on what I find interesting and powerful about the novel, and in some way reflecting my experience of reading the novel in the production I am making.

The idea that the adaptor/theatre-maker is driven less by fidelity and more by an attempt to reflect their own experience of reading the book becomes even more interesting when viewed in the light of Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz (2010), a theatrical re-imagining of one of the great American novels, The Great Gatsby. Gatz is set in an office where work has ceased for maintenance and the staff are trying to fill in time. Then one of them picks up a copy of The Great Gatsby and starts reading it out loud. A private experience suddenly becomes a public one.

The trick of Gatz is that it doesn’t try to dramatize the novel but rather, in offering all 49,000 words of it in an evening spanning 8 hours, gets to the very heart of the story and the interior and exterior lives of the characters.

You could actually read The Great Gatsby quicker at home yourself, but that is not the point, because, as Rebecca Mead wrote in the New Yorker:

Watching Gatz is a heightened version of reading the book oneself, including the same moments of riveted attention and mental wandering. Part of the power of Gatz may lie in the way in which it requires the audience’s submission to the exclusive experience of reading, without the distractions… being shut up in a darkened theatre with Gatz is a strangely potent way to reproduce the increasingly elusive experience of being enraptured by a book.

I would add that it is also entrancing theatre because it recognises that, just as a novel does not really exist when it sits closed on a bookshelf until it is opened and read, so in the theatre the audience are collaborators in the act of making something private into something shared and public.

The shock of James’ version of Persuasion is not that the visit to Lyme Regis becomes a bikini foam party, but rather how sharply the themes and concerns of Austen’s original suddenly seem so fresh and contemporary to a 21st-century audience.

Is this as good as the original novel? That is the question often asked about adaptation. But it becomes redundant as theatre-makers refuse to see the exercise as about recreating the original novel or a poor facsimile of it. Instead, they acknowledge that while you can never fit a square into a round hole, what you can do is reimagine the square as a diamond. At its best, theatrical adaptation is not a poor copy but something that can sparkle very brightly indeed.