Saturday, January 17, 2009

How to make the past present?

How to take something written in a different time and place and present it to a modern audience? Almost everyone seems to think you have to alter the original. I’m coming to the conclusion that such an activity is shonky if not unnecessary. Paradise Lost without an objectionable God ain’t Paradise Lost.

But I’m not totally convinced. So a ramble through two examples: one the recent BBC TV version of The 39 Steps, the other a new translation of the Old English Wanderer.

The 39 steps is a very much a product of its time. The central character, Richard Hannay, has all the racial and social snobbery you’d expect from a “gentleman” at the turn of the 19th century. There is no significant female character in the story.

When adapting the story for the screen, there are obvious changes that will have to be made. Hitchcock had already tried to give the story some kind of dramatic ending.

But in terms of ideologies what gets put in; what gets left out? What do you do with the bits a modern audience might baulk at? Do you present it as an historical curiosity requiring footnotes? Do you try to make it “relevant”? Do you present the version of the story the author might have written if he were alive today? How far can you go before the original text disappears?

Or: Why do they think the audience is so stupid that they can’t be trusted to see that this story is set in the past and its values are not ours?

With 7.3 million other viewers I switched on to find out. Hannay, left with information of national importance by a stranger, has to contact the “Secret Service Bureau”. He goes into a public phone box:
H: Operator. Put me through to the secret service bureau
O: One minute sir
Female voice: Secret service bureau. How may I help you?.

Oh glorious possibility, we were watching a subtle parody. After all the written story has plot holes that look like moon craters have taken up residence in Scotland. The 39 Steps rewritten by the Milligan with a rejuvenated Python crew about to appear?

Sadly no. This was meant to be taken seriously. I kept watching to see if it could get any worse.

It did. Compulsory introduction of irrelevant “strong female character’. It’s 1914, so she’s a suffragette. But c’mon she just needs to meet the right man….Ignore the slur on the suffragette movement, because here comes the inevitable, inevitably preposterous love story.

Why do we need a “love story”? Buchan didn’t. Is erotic romance the only remaining rationale in a narrative? Does all art have to aspire towards The Bold and the Beautiful? And if we must have a love story; can’t it be an adult one?

Rewrite Propp, “The morphology of the popular TV tale”. Reduce it to a depressingly familiar trajectory. Two strong characters meet and for good reasons detest each other on sight. Circumstances force them together. They realize “their true feelings” and fall in love. We know these people would never push a shopping trolley round a supermarket while their children wail for coco pops. Despite being obviously unsuited and sharing nothing but the need to survive, we are expected to believe they will remain happily ever after the credits role.

In this case the circumstances were a walk in the rain and the need to remove their damp clothes in a shared bedroom. They rub mustard on each other’s burns. Slowly. (is there a name for this perversion?) The bedroom sharing consumed a large chunk of the story. Many meaningful glances and slow movements. I think it was supposed to be about sexual tension and character revelation. Eco argued, perhaps tongue in cheek, that you could identify pornography by the way actions on screen took a disproportionate length of time to occur. If so, this was pornography. Without sex. (In the second, equally long bedroom scene the heroine offers herself to the hero, (she says “I could stay” the way she might offer to give him a lift into town). He gallantly turns her down.

Who dreams this childish nonsense?

The Hannay of the book has disappeared. He’s lost his racism and snobbery, but he’s also lost all the other qualities that made him interesting and drove the plot. All he shares with the TV version is a name. The new plot has so many twists it’s screwed. There’s still thirty nine steps and a conspiracy to learn the secrets of the British navy but that’s about it. The ending is a silly shoot out with a submarine. Followed by her death. Followed by her resurrection. They will live happily ever after the great war has finished. Damn the coco pops.

John Buchan wouldn’t recognize the story as his and would probably feel uncomfortable watching it. .

So how is this The 39 Steps?

Are they making the text accessible to a modern audience? Modern? Relevant? Or are they just hanging their story on a title because it gives it a borrowed credence? And if you’re going to make that many changes, why not call it something different and take responsibility for the narrative?

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