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Not So Great Adaptations

October 13, 2009

Channel 4’s recent Great Adaptations series sought to promote classic films that had the distinction of being as critically well-received and as successful as the  book they were adapted from. I have my doubts about the list they came up with, and I am inclined to think that it is more interesting to explore why so many film and television adaptations frequently go so very wrong.

There are many great novels that Hollywood and the BBC have bungled and botched in their transition to the screen. The BBC’s 1987 adaptation of John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy has always struck me as a good example of how to ruin a great novel. Spread over seven episodes, A Perfect Spy takes its time in bringing Le Carré’s complex narrative to life. But unlike the novel, the story never becomes riveting on screen. The adaptation is faithful to Le Carré’s work, but there is some narrative reordering which gets things off to a bad start.  The mini-series tells the life story of the double agent Magnus Pym sequentially from childhood to death. Whereas the novel begins with Pym’s disappearance, and then is told through a series of confessional letters Pym writes to his loved ones, thus enabling the action to jump back to significant moments in his life. Also another narrative strain follows, Pym’s superior in British Intelligence, Jack Brotherhood, who has started his own manhunt for the missing spy. Aspects of Pym’s life are revealed through Brotherhood’s interviews with people who have known and worked with Pym over the years. The mystery of Pym’s identity begins to unravel as Brotherhood’s investigation progresses, and Pym’s own episalatory accounts fill in the details. 

All this sense of mystery and character development is lost in the BBC adaptation, as it slowly shows Pym’s life year by year. When the narrative finally gets to Brotherhood’s desperate search for Pym, the suspense is diminished as he is obtaining information which the viewer already knows.

No adaptation is without merit. Alan Howard is superb as Brotherhood (if only he’d been given more time on screen!) as is Ray McAnally as Pym’s father, a professional con man. Peter Egan becomes more convincing as Magnus Pym as the series goes on but at times he seems rather wooden. The series was nominated for two Emmy’s and four Bafta’s, but it will never make a great adaptations list!

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