Juliet Dunlop: Why I live in hope of great adaptations
I love Sunset Song. I still have the dog-eared copy I read at school and, from time to time, I like to take it down from the shelf, dust it off and thumb through its pages.
If you haven’t read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s take on Scotland before the Great War, then a treat awaits. If you have, then you’ll understand my love of his book. It captures a way of life that is dead or is dying, where characters speak in the “mither tongue” and still scratch a living from the land. It is packed full of mud and of magic and is driven by the sheer force of Gibbon’s heroine, Chris Guthrie. Chris is Scotland for Gibbon: “Oh Chris Caledonia!” She’s a national treasure.
So, who have they picked to play farmer’s daughter Chris in the long-awaited film of the 1932 book? Why model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn, of course. Now, Deyn might make a wonderful Chris. Before Vogue beckoned she worked in a fish and chip shop in her native Lancashire, her angular beauty has been described as alien-like and she’s already had a small, non-speaking part in the 2010 blockbuster Clash of the Titans.
Either it’s a casting coup or a cock-up – we’ll have to buy a ticket to decide but the highly respected British writer-director Terence Davies has also cast our own sensitive hardman Peter Mullan as John Guthrie – the tortured, Bible-bashing father. Davies is well known for his harsh, unflinching work and has wanted to make Sunset Song for a long time.
When the news was announced at Cannes last week, his leading lady sounded keen, verging on anxious. “When I read the script I fell completely in love with the character and the story. I can’t wait to get started and just hope I can do Chris Guthrie justice.”
Of course, adaptations of well-loved books are notoriously tricky. Pleasing protective fans of the book while trying to introduce a whole new generation to an author’s work is something of a high-wire act. Sometimes the end result is unrecognisable sexed-up twaddle. Were you as confused as I was by the Brideshead Revisited film a couple of years back? Then again, in the right hands, the dense and turgid can be transformed into exciting and pacy.
Take Dickens. He’s to blame for a whole slew of films and costume dramas and most of it is brilliant. His episodic style and cliff-hanger chapter endings are perfect for the screen, both big and small. Were he alive today, surely Charles would be working as chief scriptwriter on some clever, glossy American drama.
It’s no wonder TV and film executives keep remaking Great Expectations. Director David Lean’s 1946 version still stands the test of time but lately we’ve had a new BBC costume drama starring a Burberry model as Pip and Gillian Anderson setting herself alight as Miss Havisham. Now, since when was Miss Havisham in all her decaying glory a forty-something woman who commits suicide?
But hot on the still-charred heels of the BBC’s all-star adaptation comes the news that Great Expectations is to be made into a film – again. And it already comes with a warning about the ending … they’ve changed it.
But sometimes, change is good. A little light tinkering under Jane Austen’s bonnet worked a treat. Just ask actor Colin Firth. Had screenwriter Andrew Davies not cooked up those new scenes for Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice would Colin still have morphed into a bankable Hollywood star with an Oscar to boot?
So you see the best adaptations can wave a magic wand over long and wearisome chapters, shed light on forgotten themes and breathe new life into two-dimensional characters.
Sunset Song won’t be an easy book to film – it certainly hasn’t been an easy project to get off the ground. Six years ago the UK Film Council withdrew its backing at the last minute. The tough subject matter apparently made it difficult to secure funding. The fact it’s being made at all is down to Terence Davies and his refusal to compromise.
I may have to eat my cinema ticket.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West