I saw a film in 1985 called Letter To Brezhnev. It was fairly popular but I doubt it travelled widely. It told of a romance between a Liverpudlian woman and Russian sailor and I might have imagined there would be subtitles. There weren’t – the Russian spoke English – but in the first ten minutes I wished there were as the woman and her friend had such thick Scouse accents that I was clueless what was happening.
Last night I saw To Kill A Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End. The opening is a bare stage where the three narrators emerge. These are Atticus’ two children, Scout and Jem and their friend Dill, unlike in the book when it is just Scout. It was when Scout first spoke that Letter to Brezhnev popped into my head. The actress adopted such a thick Southern accent that I had no clue what she or indeed they were on about.
It turned out they were talking about a character falling on a knife and that foreshadowed the ending.
Which was one of many ways in which the play differed from the book.
Which was something of both a challenge and a risk.
Which led me to wondering about adaptations of the classics.
That start and the early court scenes were unsatisfactory. Scout isn’t six, she’s nearer thirteen; the judge is too obviously on the side of the accused; Atticus almost preened.
By twenty minutes in, I was discouraged which was a shame. It’s a great story, the reviews from New York suggested the adaptation maintained the essence of the novel and, in Rafe Spall they had a supreme actor at the peak of his powers. What’s not to like?
Well, truth be told, once the split scenes settled into some sort of coherence and we’d deep dived into the meat of the story, things really picked up.
There were still some clunky pieces that flattened the enjoyment. Atticus’ cross examination of the accuser and his final speech to the jury felt a bit like they’d been drafted by a rap artist before being polished in the editing room. The final scene when Jem is knocked out and there is a question over whether he killed the main antagonist is played like a opera with out the music and bouncy baritones.
But overall it worked. If you know the book inside out, this will seem simplistic and lack depth. If, like me, you remember it from school and enjoy how the themes within are portrayed then the occasionally clunky dialogue and irritating triple narration won’t put you off.
It’s lucky we went, in truth. The original tickets were in 2020. Then it was rearranged twice in 2021. Persistence pays off, clearly.