So often to love a novel is to see a dramatic interpretation of it and feel cheated. What about the bit when she meets him on the train – no, they don’t kiss or say anything, but it’s about everything that wasn’t said and done, right? That was the key to everything! So often to love a novel is to see a dramatic interpretation of it and say “It wasn’t as good as the book”.
By this, I think we might really mean that, in the book, we truly bonded with characters, or that the specific exploration of the themes spoke to – or even desirably challenged – our world view. Reading is a powerful, intimate experience that allows us to consider life, relationships, our deepest selves. What one person gets from a book, another can’t.
Bringing much loved stories to the stage then, is always challenging for the adapter – you want to give everyone their favourite bits, honour each reader’s bond, try and recapture the things that make it special to each and everyone of us. But of course, largely, this is unrealistic. You can’t please everyone. And if by chance, you did manage to loyally carve out each and every moment, in perfect chronology with the novel, you would most likely end up with a diluted narrative that lacks any of the qualities that made the text special in the first place.
So I think it’s important to accept that plays and novels are very different beasts. Stories in the former can never be told the same way as they were in the latter; they are both beautiful in their differences, and both have freedoms and limitations. Really, I feel the adapter has to think about what made them bond with the original text – what they believed to be insightful, inspiring or interesting – and to land on an aspect, then pick it apart. The novel can traverse time and country in giant leaps, but in my opinion, stage adaptation works best when it shines a light on an element and takes the time to observe that element.
Dracula, for example, is roughly 400 pages long. A play of 120 minutes is roughly 90 pages long. On this text, the question of narrative loyalty is a big one. Creation’s brief (rather excitingly) also required the play to be a two-hander, and for the Count not to appear. Dracula is plot-heavy – the characters cross countries and landscapes, and experience psychological journeys equally as long and wild. So what do you include? What do you leave out?
The problem is, everything you leave in and everything you take out has an impact, which leads to another impact, then another, then another. So an overall approach feels necessary on a big old text like Bram Stoker’s. For me, the approach was that characterisation would lead over plot. My choices would be informed by the psychology of Stoker’s protagonists.
The novel has prompted many critical theories on its treatment of women, what it says about Victorian gender relations and its exploration of repressed sexuality. The director Helen Tennison and I were most drawn to these themes. And we were most drawn to the idea of Mina and Jonathan’s relationship when we started talking about Dracula as a two-hander. When we combined our themes of interest with the two-hander convention, we were presented with a narrative focus – what does Count Dracula offer to a sexually repressed couple?
Of course, this idea is explored within Stoker’s text, but in my adaptation it’s perhaps the central narrative question, and the place from which I started writing.
So, in my opinion, total narrative loyalty is not something to uphold above all else in a novel-to-stage adaptation. Different mediums require different artistic treatments. When we move a novel to the stage, we’re looking to tell the story in a way that illuminates the original text. We’re making a new artistic product that is connected to, inspired by, rooted to the original, but, by the nature of its form, can never be the same.
Creation’s work is important in this way – new approaches and new perspectives keep classic literature alive in our culture. What fresh questions can such perspectives raise and which ones might they answer? Like many other writers, a lot of my artistic mentors lived and died before I was born, but if we allow the art of re-inventing their work to be truly liberating, old narratives will keep giving back to us and keep creating exciting debate under our contemporary contexts.
- Kate Kerrow, writer and adaptor of Dracula