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February 2, 2012 / magickittenblogs

Book vs Film part 2: Birdsong

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Sometimes you can’t put it better than the Chuckle Brothers. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…

So, a couple of years ago, I read Sebastian Faulks’ finest work (TM), Birdsong. A more compelling, moving, thrilling portrayal of World War One I have yet to find. The narrative has three parts – a framing narrative, in the late 70’s/early 80’s, where a young(ish) woman tries to investigate her family’s hazy past in northern France, young Stephen’s experiences with a family in Amiens (1910), and Captain Wraysford in the trenches (and underground tunnels) of the Somme and Ypres (1916-18). These strands are masterfully woven together, to produce a tapestry of love, loss, horror, depression, hope…and almost all other human emotions besides. I was captivated. The only other thing that comes close is the final episode of Blackadder goes Forth. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Read it now.

I was very excited to see that the BBC’s Sunday evening Sherlock replacement was going to be a two-part adaptation of the book. BF informed me that originally, it was going to be made into a film, but that project had ground to a halt so the BBC picked it up instead, as 3 hours would give the piece more depth. Despite this, I was still nervous. How would they include the three story arcs? How would the maintain the tension between young Stephen and Captain W? Would it capture the brilliance and emotional depth of the novel?

Having watched both parts, I can say categorically that it’s book 1, film nil in this round.
The framing story arc – the 1980s family-hunt – was completely absent from the adaptation. Without this, there’s less (no?) reason for the audience to be interested in Stephen/Wraysford; Stephen is a callow, quiet youth; Wraysford grumpy, withdrawn and depressive. Eddie Redmayne plays young Stephen/Captain Wraysford. He does this very well, but, of course, looking essentially identical in both time periods, which totally destroys the tension between the two – when reading the books, Faulks waits chapters before linking them. In addition, there are the 1916-18 tunnel scenes with Jack Firebrace – in the novel, these are absolutely terrifying and suffocatingly tense. The men must work in near-absolute silence for fear of being blown up by Germans doing exactly the same, as they try to tunnel underneath the enemy’s trenches and destroy the structures from below. The constant danger was created so effectively in the novel that these sections were completely gripping, especially the climax. In the TV film, you felt little or no sense of peril, even when characters were killed or trapped underground. I was left almost wholly unmoved, except in one or two places. However, that was really more due to my memories of the characters from the book, or my contextual knowledge of the conditions of trench warfare.

If you’re planning to choose between the novel or the TV adaptation, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book. And if you don’t like it, believe me, it’s better than the film. Running total: books 1 – films 1


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