Tuesday, March 25, 2008

From Page to Screen

The Other Boleyn Girl (2001)
Philippa Gregory

In previous blogs I've looked at the relationship between novels and their film adaptations (a strange preoccupation, you might think, given the vanishingly small chance of ever seeing The Dog of the North on the screen). Films are often criticised for "not being the book"; a curious objection, since it's clearly implied in the word "film". I've tended to be more forgiving of film-makers, who don't have the scope to explore interior states which novelists have.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a generally favourable review of Justin Chadwick's film, The Other Boleyn Girl, not having read the book. This defect I have now remedied, and readers of the blog might be interested in how they differ.

Chadwick's film, of necessity, considerably simplifies the plot. Mary Boleyn has only one bastard by the Henry VIII in the film, but two (including a son) in the book. The existence of the son has a major effect on the dynamics within the Boleyn family, but also adds complications which a 90-minute film could not have accommodated. The film also attenuates (almost to invisibility) Henry's struggles with the Pope to grant his divorce from Katharine of Aragon.

The film also all but removes Mary Boleyn's romance with her eventual second husband, William Stafford (but then confusingly drops it back in at the end, in a way which makes very little sense unless you've read the book). This, for me at least, was a good decision: the courtship phase of the relationship was a bit Harlequin Romance for my taste, and jarred with the assured realpolitik of the rest of the novel.

The point of view is also dramatically shifted. Gregory's novel is first-person, something film always struggles to replicate. Without the insight into Mary's thoughts--and particularly growing disillusionment with the "family business"--the film struggles to present the "good" sister as anything other than insipid. Anne, on the other hand, is more sympathetically treated in the film; but the film is less successful at displaying Mary's highly ambivalent feelings towards Anne--one of the finest elements of the novel.

Despite having a smaller canvas to work with, Chadwick does interject some new material not found in the novel. A final scene in which Mary pleads to Henry for Anne's life is introduced (in the novel, more plausubly, Mary is keeping her head down in case she shares her sister's fate). Indeed, the whole business of Anne's trial and execution is given much greater attention in the film: the novel dismisses it in a curiously perfunctory fashion. A scene early in the film in which Anne and Henry hunt together is also introduced (Anne botches her chance and the torch passes to Mary: it's there to show the Boleyns utter opportunism which the book can do more indirectly).

The character of Mary and Anne's mother, Lady Boleyn, is also entirely different in the film. Played by Kristen Scott Thomas, she is an appalled and powerless victim as her family's ambition prostitutes her daughters. The performance is one of the best in the film, but it's there because Chadwick has no other way of reflecting a sensibility which Gregory can reveal through Mary's first-person narrative. Gregory's Lady Boleyn is a chilly "Howard girl" with no maternal feelings at all.

The major difference, and the one which lifts the book far above the film, is in atmosphere. Gregory's portrayal of the Tudor court is frighteningly claustrophobic: Mary soon realises she wants no part of it, but she cannot escape. Even Anne, who stokes the claustrophobia in keeping Mary by her side, falls victim to it. As her own downfall becomes inevitable, she realises she is trapped. Henry's descent from selfish playboy to tyrant contributes to and explains the context (this psychotic king is much better realised by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors than Eric Bana in The Other Boleyn Girl).

Readers and viewers who enjoy the Tudor period will no doubt be entertained by both incarnations of The Other Boleyn Girl. But those who prefer their historical drama to have emotional depth as well as opulent costumes are steered towards the book first.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Macmillan New Writing Focus

Three Things About Me (2006)
Aliya Whiteley

I'm not an expert on the anatomy of the brain. I assume there's some kind of mechanical apparatus contained within, flanges, wheels, cogs and the like. When the brain is not fuctioning within the usual parameters it's invariably described as 'having a screw loose', which is valuable empirical insight into the construction principles under the bonnet of the cranium.

It's almost a cliche to say that writers must of necessity have a screw loose: brains that work with smooth efficiency don't go to the kind of places that generate fiction. Readers who ask 'where do you get your ideas?' have all the screws fully tightened, or they wouldn't conceive, let alone ask, the question.

If writers do have a screw loose, then writers of comedy must have two; and those who write black comedy can only do so with a minimum of three screws at below optimum tension. Which brings us to Aliya Whitelely...

I missed my opportunity to meet Aliya at the launch of her latest book, Light Reading, so I didn't get to listen for the telltale clatter of screws loose in the brainpan. But Three Things About Me rattles quite loudly enough...

In very brief summary, Three Things About Me is the story of six customer service trainees and their corporate trainer. This is too close to the kind of environment I occupy in real life for it to exert much fictional appeal, but I gladly make the journey in this case. The novel is, among other things, a lacerating destruction of the kind of management gobbledegook which infects the modern workplace, as well as a cruel lampoon of people we all know. At once bleak, embarrassingly acute and curiously redemptive, it's also a considerable technical achievement.

Three Things About Me is only 300 pages or so long, but Whiteley crams in seven different points of view without losing clarity or control of tone. All the characters are grotesques in some way (even those who end up engaging the reader's sympathy, like washed-up actress Alma or retired superhero--you really have to read the book--Sam) and the different viewpoints are pin-sharp in their definition. Rose, the frankly terrifying uber-chav, is a magnificently realised monster, and the not-quite-romance between the acerbic Hilary and rocker-manque Gary is at once embarrassing and poignant. The trainer Rob and star trainee Charlotte communicate in management-speak (Charlotte even thinks in numbered lists), but Charlotte's professional veneer conceals...well, you really will just have to read the book).

Three Things About Me has been compared to The Office, which considerably understates its ambition. Whiteley can go beyond the everyday into a rip-roaring world of surrealism (when we find out why Sam's superhero identity is 'the Death-Defying Sputum', it's worth the wait). She's able to meld the horror of everyday banality with an ability to make curious linkages: Three Things About Me starts where The Office stops.

Aliya Whiteley is a writer with unusual talent: her flair for penetrating everyday observation is matched with a free-wheeling imagination which goes one step further than it should. The result is fiction which teeters on the edge of lunacy. Let's hope those last screws hold...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Strangeness of Blogger

Today's post, with its upload of a Dog of the North proof page, has appeared with last Sunday's date (because that's when I started it). OK, it shouldn't have taken a week to write 70 words, but even so, that's a software glitch by any standards...

To find the original post, just scroll down the page, or click here

Monday, March 10, 2008

On the Big Screen

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Dir: Justin Chadwick

Regular readers of ::Acquired Taste will know that, while I write fantasy, I also have a partiality for historical fiction. Before Christmas we looked at the BBC series The Tudors, a piece of highly entertaining froth looking at Henry VIII's struggle to divorce Katharine of Aragon and marry Anne Bolyen.

The Other Boleyn Girl, adapted from Philippa Gregory's novel, covers broadly the same period but from a rather different perspective. Where The Tudors was primarily an ensemble piece (if it had a lead character, it was King Henry), TOBG is a more tightly focused domestic drama, with the Boleyn family at its centre. This makes at times for a curiously unbalanced narrative--Henry's break with Rome is casually squeezed into five minutes of a badly flagging fourth act--but the film is not attempting to provide a nuanced portrait of the high Tudor period.

Instead, the film's focus on a single, crassly ambitious family considers the human cost of political intrigue. It's taken for granted by the Duke of Norfolk (a smoothly repellent David Morrissey) that his brother-in-law will not object to the Duke prostituting either or both of his daughters in the cause of family advancement. In the film's political dynamic, women exist to be manipulated, trophies and tokens to be enjoyed and cast aside. Anne (Natalie Portman) believes that she has learned to pull the strings at the French court: events prove her sadly optimistic.

Where the film stands or falls--and by large it stands--is in the relationship between the two Boleyn sisters, Anne and Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Johansson, despite a huge amount of screen time, is given very little to do except look demure and victimised (which she manages very well). Portman has by far the stronger role as an ambitious schemer who will betray anyone--including her sister--to get what she wants. Events unravel, of course, and Anne is dragged down to eventual show trial (where her uncle Norfolk is among those who condemns her) and execution. Portman manages to wring a degree of sympathy for her fate in a nicely-rounded portrayal.

The film is interesting in that it concentrates on the viewpoints of the two essentially powerless sisters. The decision to steer away from the court power politics (Wolsey and Cromwell hardly feature, Sir Thomas More not at all) allows the marginalised characters to take centre stage. In this it may be dismissed by some as a "woman's film" (the male characters are generally either weak, callous or both), but in taking a different perspective on a well-known period, it's to be commended. It's not without its flaws, but for those interested in writing fiction about court intrigues in pre-industrial societies, it's required viewing.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

And here it is...

The first page of the Macmillan edition of The Dog of the North sees the light of day!

I've now sent my proofing changes back to Will (about 60 in total, most of them italics which disappeared between software versions).

The book runs to 470 pages, which looks much better value for £14.99.

It's quite a feeling to see the whole book set in the MNW format: it's now one step closer to 'reality'.

* * *
Yesterday's Guardian had an interesting piece by John Patterson on how the trend for turning novels into films has a pernicious effect on writers (because it makes them think in 'screenplay' terms rather than exploring things books can do which films can't). It's deliberately provocative, and perhaps goes further than I would - but it's still well worth a read.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


I had an email from Will last night to say that the proofs of The Dog of the North are ready, and they "look great". I may be biased, but I'm sure he's right. I can't wait to see them; although the book had a brief self-publication run, seeing someone else's typesetting will be a thrill.

It's also the final chance for me to give the book a last once-over, before I let it make its own way in the world. I've read the book so often (apparently I even wrote it, although that's now so long ago I have to take it on trust) that it's unlikely I'll see anything new, but if I pick up even one correction it's worth it.

If I can work out how to use the scanner/printer/fax machine/photocopier/combine harvester combo under the desk I'll post a picture of the proofs when they arrive.