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Tabula Rasa

Adaption Papers

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#7, 1995

The adaptation of work between various mediums causes all sorts of discussion and controversy, usually about a movie having been adapted from a novel. The actual practise is legitimate enough (and sometimes you can despair and wonder if anyone's going to write a decent screenplay not written from a novel, though of course there are many fine examples), but inevitably comparisons arise. I know people who have gotten somewhat sick of the phrase '...but the book's better', applied to many situations. Usually it's a simple matter of lost intricacy, or bowing to the fears of those who place millions of dollars in a film-maker's hands. There are even exceptions to the rule, David Lynch's Wild at Heart may have a happier ending than Barry Gifford's novel, but contains a far more complex story.

The reverse process of adapting a book from a movie is certainly common enough, but I hesitate to call it legitimate. Apart from offering the odd interesting bit of information (and perhaps a method of settling disputes -- though I don't actually believe Alan Dean Foster when he claims Bishop was a human at the end of Alien3) they are generally a pretty bland art form.

But adaptations are by no means limited to these two mediums. Comic adaptations of films have become an established tradition for the more popular features. Comics based on written fiction are rarer, and seem to be a phenomena which has already passed. In the late 80s/early 90s there was a reasonably significant amount of material being adapted in the horror field, notably the Clive Barker stories -- as well as the adaptation of classics such as various Poe stories (I don't think I've ever seen a Lovecraft...) and even the Night of the Living Dead and M movies. Since then the emphasis seems to have shifted to original work by established authors, such as the Joe R Lansdale Jonah Hex comics or the recent James Herbert graphic novel of The City. Attempts to publish comics 'created by' Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, however, don't appear to have amounted to much.

On the other hand, the release of audio books only seems to be growing in popularity. These days you can get them for all sorts of things, even the Anne Rice Beauty series, though some degree of mainstream popularity tends to be required (there is a greater range for the visually-impaired, though I'm not sure how the horror genre is represented).

Other examples come to mind, I've heard a pretty decent radio play of Dracula, and Neil Gaiman tells how he discovered, by chance, a children's television segment based on a story of his in a men's magazine. Then there is the fact that Star Trek have 'adapted' The Witching Hour...

We've recently seen two examples of big screen adaptations of Rice's work, one successful, one less so. The screen rights of The Witching Hour itself have been sold -- to Paramount no less -- so maybe we'll see that one day, with Julia Roberts as Rowan, no doubt [1]. Meanwhile, we've got a number of more esoteric ways of working out what happened in the novel without actually reading it.

Lindsay Crouse is apparently a reasonably well regarded actor (judging by an Academy Award Nomination, anyway) with a list of films from the 80s I haven't actually heard of, and in 1991 she read The Witching Hour onto about three hours of audio tape. The first thing that strikes you is that's it's a reasonably flat rendition, a competent rather than a noteworthy reading, though it picks up in the latter stages to become more involving. It certainly doesn't stand up in comparison to Tim Curry's incredible intonation of Cry to Heaven [2].

The next point noticed, if you have a copy of the novel handy, anyway, is the amount of (unacknowledged) work that has gone into this abridgment. I had always made a vague sort of assumption that an adaptation of an author's works would at least leave the paragraphs intact, but by no means is this the case. Sentences follow logically, having skipped half a page, or many pages, situations are simplified (for example, the three aunts tending Deirdre become just Carlotta Mayfair), actions are compressed to their simplest state, and reflections usually omitted altogether. To make matters worse, this adaptation starts about seventy five pages in and then, after some time, jumps back to an earlier chapter. All this is, of course, to provide a version that reads as well as possible in the shortest available time -- you can do a lot of things in three hours, but reading aloud a 965 page book isn't one of them. This is particularly noticeable when a male voice (again, unacknowledged) summarises various character movements and then the entirety of the file on the Mayfair Witches -- that is, the whole of the historical detail for which Anne is deservedly well known.

Of course, if you want to talk about abridgment, there's always the comic...

The writers of Millennium's The Witching Hour haven't fallen into the trap of just reprinting bits of the novel around the pictures (Steve Niles' I am Legend comes to mind), or at least not to anything like the same degree. There is no lack of words on the page, and the layout emphasises the art nicely enough. Perhaps, indeed, the layout is too showy, relying on too many 'tricks' and changes of style that the somewhat flat artwork isn't quite up to bringing off.

It's impossible to present a long term impression of the comic, for the simple reason that the company went bankrupt well before it was completed -- in itself a telling comment about the success of the venture, though are naturally many possible extenuating circumstances.

But in judging the success of these two adaptations, you need to ask if they achieve what they are setting out to do -- convey the wonder of Anne Rice's writing in another medium, one that takes less time or, in the increasingly visual world, less effort to absorb.

And Anne Rice's writing is wonderful. The Witching Hour contains almost a thousand pages in which very little seems to happen and nothing is resolved, but it all works very well because of the attention to detail and the sheer elegance of the prose. Are these qualities conveyed? And, as importantly, do they retain the feel of Anne's world of sexuality and sensuality and disturbing detail?

They both try, for one thing. The audio tape has shown no squeamishness in its selection of material, and the recital, for instance, of Rowan's rape by Lasher on the aeroplane and the contents of the Mayfair's cellar are presented well, and integral to all around them. I have neither of the issues in which the same events occur in the comic book, so it's hard to compare, but the sexuality is certainly more 'conventional' than one might expect, from Michael and Rowan's (almost) completely understated lovemaking to the simply erroneous inclusion of naked nymphs on the cover of issue 2. If nothing else, I can't see how this approach would work at all in depicting the more sordid and explicit sequel.

What about the Star Trek story? Well, I'll say up front I am by no means a fan of this program, in either television incarnation, or on the screen. I will also assume without too much proof that Sub Rosa, the story in question, is a rip-off of Anne Rice's novel, and while it doesn't appear on the episode I have seen, I believe her name was even added to the credits after the original screening.

A quick summary then, of events: the Enterprise's Chief MO, Beverly Crusher, is revealed to come from a linage of healers, originating in seventeenth century Scotland and intimately involved with the 'ghost' Ronin. While Ronin mourns his old love, Beverly's grandmother, with a spectacular storm on his planet of Scotland transplanted, he is also seducing Beverly, inspiring her to leave the Enterprise and take her grandmother's place. Ronin is of course not a ghost at all, but a being using this genetic progression of healers to become human. Sound familiar? [3]

Presumably there is still some desire to present the style as well as the substance of the original story, and indeed there is reasonable evidence of this. Apart from the setting of ScottishWorld -- complete with the worst stereotypes this side of that X Files arsonist episode -- there are Gothic things happening. Fog in the Enterprise, midnight wandering through graveyards, animated corpses (all mixed up, of course, with the normal Trek icons of pseudo-babble and complete apathy towards any vaguely interesting event).

More significantly, and closer to the source, is the nature of Beverly's relationship with her disembodied suitor. Frankly sexual in nature, the overtones of rape and manipulation are all there, if not as explicitly stated. Whether this extra subtlety actually provides a more interesting conflict is an interesting point. Rowan's ancestors, for the most part, did quite well out of Lasher -- certainly with bouts of incredible misfortune, before the exact nature of his intentions are revealed in the sequel. In Sub Rosa things are less clear, and while Beverly discovers and puts an end to the manipulations, the closing line emphasises that Ronin did make his companions very happy. Not just a glib line, this, for Beverly's Grandmother was earlier revealed as a strong and much-respected figure in her community, seemingly a worthy position for the doctor to aspire to.

I don't really know what to make of the episode as a whole. It doesn't do a great deal to me in either direction, and it was only really interesting to see its depiction of some of television's less touched-upon subjects. From the point of view of the actual Trekkie I asked for comment, the episode sat uncomfortably with the normal style of the show; its derivative nature was showing.

It's been quite some time since I read The Witching Hour, and these more recent adaptations have reminded me a great deal of the events of that book, filling in many of the details I couldn't remember. But while I believe the adaptations are a legitimate art form, reinterpreting the novel as image, widening the audience and presenting it to those who wouldn't or couldn't otherwise experience it, they do lose something in the translation. It's like The Vampire Lestat -- I collected and enjoyed all the comics, but the sense of revelation and wonder that the novel, quite literally, left me with was not there.

Perhaps it's just that comic books and TV can quite successfully present their own stories, without the need for adaptation at all. Perhaps it's just that the talent of the individual artists involved was, in this case, simply not up to the task. But as someone has said before, the book's better.

Checklist

  • The Witching Hour, Anne Rice, Chatto and Windus, London, 1990.
  • The Witching Hour, Anne Rice, read by Lindsay Crouse, Recorded Book Corporation, Sydney, 1991.
  • The Witching Hour, Duncan Eagleson, Terry Collins and others, based on the novel by Anne Rice, Millennium, Sun City Centre, Florida, 1992. Note this has been released in a few forms, with a few different covers, although apparently no more than the first six issues (of 13) were completed. Don't get it confused with the other comics called Witching Hour either...
  • Sub Rosa, teleplay by Brannon Braga, TV story by Jeri Taylor, based upon material by Jeanna F. Gallo, directed by Jonathan Frakes, in Star Trek: The Next Generation season 7, Paramount, Los Angeles, 1994.

Links

Notes

[1] OK, she was good in Flatliners, I'm afraid the prejudices are soaking in.
[2] One of TWH's main characters is one Michael Curry, whose father's name is revealed as Tim in Lasher, a little nod on Anne's part, I suspect -- also, just by the by, I've been told Michael makes an unnamed appearance in one of the latter Vampire books, another in-joke for those counting.
[3] There's a number of other details as well, and a synchronicity of names such as Rowan and Ronin, whereas Beverley's maiden name is revealed to be Howard -- Anne Rice's real christian name.
 

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