Sunday, 22 January 2012

Birdsong: review

Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks,has finally made it to television, and I've just watched the first episode. Faulks, of course, isn't a "crime writer", despite his recent foray into the world of James Bond with Devil May Care, but along with Ian McEwan (who is possibly my favourite - I'll be writing more about him before long) and one or two others, he is in the top rank of contemporary British novelists. There is a lot that genre writers can learn from studying such masters of the craft of fiction.

I very much enjoyed the TV version of Birdsong. Briefly, it tells the story of Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire, who meeet when he visits Amiens during the Edwardian era - she is the wife of a hard-nosed French businessman with whom he has an association. The pair enjoy a torrid affair, and memories of it return to Wraysford when he is fighting for his life in the Somme.

The lead roles are taken by Eddie Redmayne and Clemence Poesy, and both gave strong performances. The scenes set in pre-war Amiens were quite beautifully photographed, but it was the graphic scenes set in the horrors of the trenches that made by far the biggest impact. This was television drama at its most powerful.

As it happens, I haven't read Faulks' book: one of all too many gaps in my mainstream reading. Does not knowing the book make a difference to the viewing experience? Possibly, although when I watch (say) adaptations of crime novels by the likes of Mark Billingham, Ann Cleeves or Peter Robinson, I don't find it difficult to draw a distinction between original material and the TV version. I'm equally happy to come to a TV adaptation fresh, or to try to assess it on its own merits as distinct from the source. Certainly, Reg Hill was strongly of the view that the TV versions of Dalziel and Pascoe were very different works from his novels about the duo. I prefer the books of Mark, Ann, Peter and Reg to the TV versions, but to say this is not to denigrate the adaptations. And I can think of one or two other adaptations that outshine the originals. This drama has made me want to read Birdsong, but when I do, I'll treat it as a different experience from watching Abi Morgan's script brought to life on the screen.

7 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - You make a well-taken point that talent is talent, and no matter what one's genre, one can learn from highly skilled writers. Glad you enjoyed Birdsong.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember reading and enjoying this years again. Hope it jumps the pond.

Behind said...

Not having read the book probably means you enjoyed the televised version more. I've read the book and last night's TV version was pale and limp in comparison.

Hannah Dennison said...

I read the book and it affected me profoundly. In fact I read it in three days. The book captured my imagination so vividly I have a feeling I may well be agreeing with the "pale and limp"comment. The dramatized version of Cold Mountain suffered a similar fate but I'm still going to watch Birdsong if it jumps the pond!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for your comments. I really must read the book!

Birmingham ghost said...

Personally I thought Birdsong is a betrayal of the book and the conditions experienced by the soldiers (British, French, South African, Canadian and German) on the western front. The dug outs are positively sanitary and there is virtually no Somme mud. As someone who has trudged around the fields of the Somme battleground take it from me, your feet turn into huge balls of mud in the slightest rain. There are no rats feeding on corpses and there is little made of the vast numbers of the casualties on the first day. In fact, it looks like the attack was only on a regimental scale. The barbed wire is almost non existent and the sun shines constantly, above all the viewer is left with no sense of the sheer hopelessness and desperation of attacking uphill, with heavy packs in deep mud, barbed wire, unbelievably heavy shellfire and the subsequent bitter struggle which ensued after the first day....I like the book and do not rate this adaptation....

Anonymous said...

Personally I thought Birdsong is a betrayal of the book and the conditions experienced by the soldiers (British, French, South African, Canadian and German) on the western front. The dug outs are positively sanitary and there is virtually no Somme mud. As someone who has trudged around the fields of the Somme battleground take it from me, your feet turn into huge balls of mud in the slightest rain. There are no rats feeding on corpses and there is little made of the vast numbers of the casualties on the first day. In fact, it looks like the attack was only on a regimental scale. The barbed wire is almost non existent and the sun shines constantly, above all the viewer is left with no sense of the sheer hopelessness and desperation of attacking uphill, with heavy packs in deep mud, barbed wire, unbelievably heavy shellfire and the subsequent bitter struggle which ensued after the first day....I like the book and do not rate this adaptation....