Thursday, 27 March 2014

Adaptability by Anne Stormont

Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change – Wayne W Dyer

Adapt and Evolve, Adapt and Survive – both are well-known mantras. Both can be applied literally as essential to the continuance of Life on the planet. They can also be applied in a more metaphorical sense to survival in economics, politics, the world of work and in daily life in general. And a willingness to adapt also has a positive relevance to art, to its makers and its consumers.

For human beings, the capacity to adapt contains within it flexibility of thought and attitude, as well as elements of imaginative, lateral and original thinking, a degree of faith and optimism and a willingness to try and to persevere. It also has a lot in common with resilience.

As far as writers are concerned, adaptability is essential. It’s essential in their approach to the creative process and it’s essential in their attitude to the finished product.

For me, as a writer, the dream scenario is to have one of my books picked up for adaptation to television or cinema screen. A flight to London to meet the head of BBC drama, or maybe even to Hollywood to chat to Spielberg. Ahh... 

A dream for me, but a reality for more successful authors; authors such as Markus Zusak whose international bestseller, The Book Thief, has just been made into a film. In a recent interview in the Scotsman newspaper (with journalist Clare Black ) Zusak spoke of how pleased he was to see how well the young actress playing Liesel his protagonist captured the spirit of Liesel and how she translated it directly to the screen. But he also seemed a bit bemused by the process of seeing his work adapted for the big screen. He played no part in the creation of the screenplay and he says although there were times when the process was exciting, there were also times when it was daunting too.

For a writer, having your work adapted to another medium must indeed be both thrilling and difficult. You have to trust your ‘baby’ to someone else, to someone you’ve never met and who will do unknown things to it, most likely change it in ways you could never have foreseen. For better or worse it will be an emotional experience.

Children’s author Mairi Hedderwick, author of the Katie Morag books, speaking on Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, said that she cried tears of joy when she saw her little heroine brought to life on television. I could certainly relate to her sentiment. Just seeing your work in print is amazing enough, seeing your characters alive on the page. But to see them brought to life in three dimensions must be truly amazing.

As an admiring reader of both the Katie Morag adventures and of The Book Thief, the prospect of seeing a much-loved novel transferred to television or cinema can be an uncertain one.

In common with many readers, I can be a bit ambivalent about adaptations. From being swept away by Gone With The Wind in glorious technicolor as a teenager in the 1970s, having read the book several times, to adoring the recent stage and film versions of Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse – much against my expectations – I have found that my enjoyment of a book can be enhanced by its film versions.

I also approved of the television dramatisations of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie detective stories, but I wasn’t so sure about the transfer of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels to the small screen. And I wasn't completely satisfied by the film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, having loved the books.

But you could argue that at least the adaptation process of books to screen exposes the material to  a much wider audience, to people who would never have considered reading the books in the first place. I’m sure many more people have seen the television versions of the works of Dickens and Austen than have actually read them.

Children too can benefit from seeing screen adaptations of books. From Heidi to Harry Potter, films show the power of story, fire the imagination and possibly even lead reluctant readers to engage with the written word.

And where would the BBC and indeed the film industry be without book adaptations?

So there’s a lot to be gained by converting the written format to the dramatic, both for the writer and for the reader. It’s true of other media too of course. Stage plays become movies, think of all those musicals. Paintings become novels – The Girl with the Pearl Earring for example. Television reality shows become fictional stage plays as did the Jerry Springer Show, when it became the musical.

I reckon all this cross-fertilisation can only be a good thing.

But when it comes to the art and craft of writing, what of the inherent adaptability needed by a writer?

Cross-fertilisation is a good thing here too. Authors spend a lot of time alone at their desks. But in order for new ideas to take root and grow, a writer must get out and about. Writers must always be open to new ideas, new approaches, new ways of doing things. If you want the creative juices to flow, get out of your comfort zone, go to art exhibitions and to museums, open yourself up to the visual, go to concerts, to the theatre and to the cinema. Read genres you wouldn’t normally read. I recently, reluctantly, viewed the movie of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I hadn’t fancied the book having read reviews of it­ – in spite of its bestseller status. The movie blew me away. I then read the book. It blew my mind – in a good way.

And in the twenty-first century digital world, authors must adapt to new ways of publishing and marketing. Routes to publishing are now very different to even ten years ago. The traditional steps of getting an agent who got you a publisher are now no longer essential. Now the adaptable author can be their own publisher. Adaptability has democratised publishing. The cream, more often than not, still rises to the top both in the ‘indie’ and traditional spheres. There’s still a place for the traditional publishers, but they don’t hold all the power. Indeed mid-list traditionally published writers are often actually opting to go indie in order to keep their work out there and to take back some control over their careers. Things have changed and publishing itself must adapt to survive.

 The adaptable reader no longer needs to buy actual paper books, not when books are cheaply available in e-formats. The adaptable and discerning reader can also flit between the big-boy publishers and the author-publishers. What matters to them is quality writing, not provenance.

Change for the sake of it is a futile act. But change for the better is good. Adopting an adaptable and open frame of mind is the way to thrive through change, and is a way of maintaining an element of control. This is as true for writers, readers and publishers as it is for anyone else engaged in the business of human life.

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