Translating Heroes #theatre

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.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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25 Responses to Translating Heroes #theatre

  1. I think you are saying, Geoff, that plays need to stand alone without comparison to the book, and that would be right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Yes, it only took me 650 words and several diversions to conclude that. In a way, we expect a play/film etc based on a loved book to be that book so when it’s not it’s difficult to see it on its own merits as if we had never read the book.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! That is the different between a lawyer and an accountant. I rarely watch movies or plays based on books I’ve read. Phantom of the Opera is and exception, and so was Matilda. I did like both plays and neither were bad renditions of the underlying books.

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        The staging of The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime was very different to how I imagined the book but equally excellent. Rare to find that.


  2. Darlene says:

    It’s kind of like watching a Shakespeare play, the first ten minutes you can’t understand anything they say, and then your ear gets used to it and you are fine with it for the remainder of the play. Glad you finally got to see this play.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jennie says:

    Any thick accent is hard to understand and becomes frustrating for the listener. I’m glad you were able to see the play.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the review. I would like to see it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Erika says:

    I am glad all over it you liked it, Geoff!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I would find the play very difficult since I am so attuned to the book. Why do playwrights want to reenvision nearly perfect works in decidedly off-putting ways? Ego.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. trifflepudling says:

    Good you liked it but I think I’d have been infuriated as the book was pretty much perfect and conveyed the injustice and prejudice probably better than any updated effort.
    Re. your piece on swearing the other day, there is another row going on about the N word, and some commenters were saying “it’s just a word”. I mean I ask you, what is wrong with these people…?!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think I saw the film of To Kill a Mockingbird before I read the book, both excellent. I saw Letter to Brezhnev too and don’t remember a linguistic problem. Perhaps we northerners can all understand each other!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. JT Twissel says:

    I imagine a thick southern accent would be hard for a Londoner to understand. I think the Scout voice really makes that novel magical. I can’t imagine having three narrators.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. KL Caley says:

    Oh what a shame. We went several years ago to see a version at our local theatre.They pretty much stuck to the book (when the set allowed), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was one of my favourite books as a teenager, it was recommended by a family member who was shocked it wasn’t on my school literature reading list. I think it’s always a struggle when something is already so good, any adaptation has a lot to live up to. KL ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I find dialect on TV increasingly difficult to follow, and there is nothing wrong with my hearing. Excellent review.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. V.M.Sang says:

    I agree about the accents. Sometimes we get a foreigner, such as someone from the Carribbean speaking English, perfectly understandable English, but we get subtitles. Then we get someone from part of the UK, like the Scousers, Geordies or Glaswegians who, to my ears, are incomprehensible, but no subtitles.

    Liked by 1 person

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