Television takes on film in the next chapter of book adaptations

Adaptations of children’s and young adult literature are big news right now, both in film and, increasingly, on television. Mockingjay – Part 2, the climax of Lionsgate’s big screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games books, arrives in UK cinemas this week, the BBC has just announced a small screen take on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a new series of Jill Murphy’s much-loved Worst Witch books is in production and Christmas will see several children’s favourites on TV, from the BBC’s version of Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man to Sky1’s Fungus The Bogeyman, a series inspired by Raymond Briggs’s classic tale.

Yet with this host of adaptations comes an array of questions. Does TV allow more time to tell the story? Does film’s bigger budget make for a more involving tale? Are some tales intrinsically more suited to film than TV, and vice versa?

“There’s a great deal of difference in adapting for TV as opposed to film – and further differences for radio and stage performances,” says Florentyna Martin, children’s buyer at Waterstones. “Film adaptations allow for a single-sitting with a resolution at the end, much like reading a book from cover-to-cover in one go [whereas] developing books on TV provides an expansion of the story-world with a level of detail that is perhaps best mirrored in books.”

Martin points to the hugely successful Harry Potter films, which earned over $7.7bn (£5bn) at the global box office, as an obvious example of the differences between the two genres. 

“The Harry Potter films are truly magical because not only did they appeal almost whole-heartedly to readers of the books but they reached out to a vast new audience, which is a rare thing to get right. A TV adaptation would likely have altered the pace of the plot and perhaps focused more on the characterisation and the Hogwarts setting, and less on the overall struggle between Harry and Voldemort.” 

Narrowing the gap
In other words films tend to streamline the story simply by virtue of their time constraints. While (as with both the Potter films and The Hunger Games) this can be hugely effective, as it steers viewers to the novels’ central themes, it can also backfire. The Golden Compass, the 2007 film version of the first His Dark Materials novel, jettisons much of the atmosphere and storyline of Pullman’s book in favour of big budget effects and a hunt for lost children. 

These compromises were in part down to the film’s troubled shoot but also because of a certain awkwardness in adapting this sort of material: the question of how dark you can go in a film or series purportedly aimed at a young audience. Pullman himself has been outspoken about the film version’s flaws.

When the TV adaptation was announced he pointedly hailed the way in which television allows for “depths of characterisation and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel” adding that “the sheer talent now working in the world of long-form television is formidable.” That last point is key. In the past film adaptations could claim to have the edge because in addition to possessing the larger budget they were also able to draw in A-list talent, both in front of and behind the camera. These days that same talent is flocking to the small screen, ensuring that the gap is narrowing.

One broadcaster making use of this is Sky, which has made a name for itself with a series of star-studded Sky1 adaptations of children’s classics, from last Christmas’s Moonfleet starring Ray Winstone to 2009’s Skellig featuring Tim Roth and Kelly Macdonald. This year its Christmas offering is a three-part version of Fungus The Bogeyman starring Timothy Spall, Victoria Wood and Keeley Hawes. Made in conjunction with Andy Serkis’s Imaginarium Studios, who have handled motion capture technology in blockbusters from The Avengers to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it marks the first time their innovative technology will be applied to television.

Collaborations are important 
“The thing for us is that we can’t replicate BBC, ITV or Channel 4 because we’re a subscription service so we have to work much harder to create something that feels unique,” says Sky Drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach, adding that Sky’s adaptations are almost closer to film than TV. 

“We always aspire to be like a blockbuster movie in the sense that anything we’re showing should be worth paying for like that ticket to the Odeon. Fungus is a family show with irreverent humour, jokes for adults and children, a great cast and some incredible technology from Imaginarium. That feels very Sky.”

For Michael Rose, the joint managing director of Magic Light Productions, the team behind the hugely successful BBC1 animated adaptations of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s picture books, the most important thing in adaptations, both film and TV, is collaboration. Magic Light worked very closely with Donaldson and Scheffler throughout their adaptations, the latest of which, Stick Man, will air on BBC1 this Christmas. 

“It does frustrate me seeing people get hold of a writer’s work and then not involving them,” he says. “Writers should be involved as much as possible because it’s their world, they’re the people who know it best. The value of having such brilliant material is that you’re faithful to it.” It’s an encouraging sign that Pullman is involved in recruiting a writer to adapt His Dark Materials.

Rose agrees that there is still something of a budget gap between television and film but adds that there are ways of getting round that. “It’s still the case that film production trumps TV but technological advances mean that increasingly we can bring very high production values to TV work,” he says. “We’re not competing with film, we’re offering something different. I would hope that when people watch Stick Man it’s because it’s a piece of very, very high quality animation that the whole family can watch together. It’s an event.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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