19 February, 2006

Greenmantle revisited

A disappointing radio drama adaptation of John Buchan’s Greenmantle prompted me to re-read the book. I’m relieved to report that the book was the same entertaining read I’d remembered from 20+ years ago, and it had clearly suffered in the adaptation process. I recall hearing a radio writer discussing adaptation and abridgement, and saying how difficult it was to strike the right balance between cutting down the detail to produce a tight drama and losing too much of the ‘colour’. I should imagine everyone has a different idea of the ‘right’ balance, and in this case mine was quite a way from the dramatist’s.

The writing has style, warmth and humour, as if Richard Hannay is spinning you a yarn over a rather good port in his London club. The casual racism/chauvinism grated at first, but after a while I simply tuned it out as Major Hannay’s opinion and it stopped bothering me. There’s a strong sense of place and vivid landscape descriptions, from depressed wartime London to snowy German forests to exotic Constantinople to the winter-gripped mountains of the Caucasus. There was one scene that I’d remembered for 20-odd years, where Blenkiron and Hannay wander the streets of Constantinople collecting intelligence messages from such unlikely sources as an orange seller and a beggar who gives change. This adds life and colour, and I suppose there wasn’t room for it in the drama. Yet despite all this cutting, the pace feels much faster on the page. Which is very odd; the drama lasted 2 hours and felt slow, while the book must have taken at least 6 hours to read and felt fast. How could that be? Any suggestions?

The implausible coincidences that annoyed me in the drama were all there in the original, but they worked in the book. I think this is partly because our heroes experience bad luck as well as good, which evens it out, and partly because Richard Hannay acknowledges it as luck. He comes over as an adventurer grasping at whatever opportunity happens to turn up, which gives me the feeling that if that particular coincidence hadn’t happened, something else would have done and he would have turned that to his advantage instead. “Chance favours the prepared mind.” I’m quite happy with that.

Characterisation also works much better in the book, in part because John Buchan makes effective use of some judicious telling when he introduces characters. Here for example is what he has to say about Peter Pienaar:

But first a word must be said about Peter. He was the man that taught me all I ever knew of veld-craft, and a good deal about human nature besides. He was out of the Old Colony - Burgersdorp, I think - but he had come to the Transvaal when the Lydenburg goldfields started. He was prospector, transport-rider and hunter in turns, but principally a hunter. In those early days he was none too good a citizen. He was in Swaziland with Bob Macnab, and you know what that means. [Actually, I don’t, but I get the idea from the context] Then he took to working off bogus gold propositions on Kimberley and Johannesburg magnates, and what he didn’t know about salting a mine wasn’t knowledge. After that he was in the Kalahari, where he and Scotty Smith were familiar names. An era of comparative respectability dawned for him with the Matabele War, when he did uncommon good scouting and transport work. Cecil Rhodes wanted to establish him on a stock farm down Salisbury way, but Peter was an independent devil and would call no man master. He took to big-game hunting, which was what God intended him for, and was far the finest shot I have seen in my life.

-Greenmantle, by John Buchan

Thank you, John Buchan - now I have Peter in my mind and can read a story about him. This reminds me of the way Norse sagas always describe important new characters when they first appear, for example:

Now it is time to mention Njal’s sons. The eldest was called Skarp-Hedin. He was a tall, powerful man, skilful with arms, excellent at swimming and running. He was quick to make up his mind and confident in his decisions, quick to speak and scathing in his words; but for the most part he kept himself well under control.

-Njal’s Saga, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson

After the initial introduction the sagas ‘show’ (and how), but they give you something to start from. This works very well for me as a reader, and I think it’s a pity if rigid application of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule deprives me of it. How could Buchan ‘show’ all this about Peter? With a flashback of Peter’s career that would go on for pages, confuse me and slow the pace of the main story? Gradually, in bits and pieces of ‘backstory’ scattered over half a dozen chapters, so it loses impact and/or I forget half of it? But without it - as in the drama - I don’t get a clear image of Peter and both character and story lose vitality. Of course ‘show’ the main events (why would you want to do anything else?), but half a page of ‘tell’ can add a lot of extra richness to the background and the secondary characters without losing pace.

A similar occasional use of ‘tell’ also helped to keep the complicated ramifications of the plot straight. For example, in the drama I lost track of why the Russians suddenly became important about halfway through the second episode; in the book it worked fine because someone explained it to me. I think the drama may also have had a problem with pacing, because the first episode finished exactly halfway through the book (page 156 of 314), but an awful lot more things happen in the second half than in the first. This made the first episode slow and the second episode confusing.

So for me, the radio adaptation had managed to retain the Ripping Yarn-style plot at the expense of much of the life and colour. In the terms of a recent discussion here, the adaptation had ‘plot’ but the book had ‘story’.

Incidentally, I’ve seen a discussion somewhere about how the word ‘romance’ used to mean a larger-than-life story of any kind, whereas it’s now narrowed to mean a male-female love story with a guaranteed happy ending. I was reading the 1967 Hodder & Stoughton edition of Greenmantle, and the cover blurb described it as a ‘romance’; clearly the word retained its original meaning at that time. The blurb was also titled ‘John Buchan: Books for enjoyment’, which is a refreshingly honest and direct way for a publisher to describe a book. I don't remember seeing such a straightforward strapline on recently-published books, which seem to have a tendency to the Epic And Portentous. How about the rest of you?

6 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

I don't mind that sort of character introduction, but then, I've read my share of Icelandic sagas. And Sir Walter Scott. :-) Duggan still could get away with a lot of telling in the 60ies, but nowadays a beginning like this

Ciaran of the Irish tribe of the Dál Riatans was ten when he family fled to Scotland after his father Cormac had been killed be Niall son of Eochaid who claimed the kingship. A trusted friend of the family, Maelduin, got them on a boat: Ciaran, his mother Alainn, his older brother Caolán, and Maelduin's own son Muiredach who was of Ciaran's age and to become his lifelong friend. They crossed the Irish Sea in a severe winter storm but landed safely at the rugged shore of their new home.

Ciaran's uncle Cairpre had established a settlement on land he conquered from the Picts some years ago, and thus Ciaran's new life began in the fortress of Dunadd, among mountains sterner than the green hills of Ireland. He grew into a red haired youth with a good hand for horses, armour bearer of his cousin Comghail, eager to win fame in the skirmishes against the Roman garrisons at the Wall. Yet Ciaran admired his enemies, their culture, their discipline, and one day he took a captive who taught him the language or the Romans and the letters.


would make Miss Snark send me a form rejection faster than you can say Killer Yapp. ;-)

I try to play with the new "rules" as best as possible. So far I haven't found it overly restrictive to sneak backstory in through the backdoor.

Bernita said...

So glad you enjoyed re-visiting Greenmantle. Though the word is overused, I love John Buchan.I've always had a yen for Sandy, and Mr. Standfast, where Peter dies, still makes me cry.
It's the uncomplicated, clear heroics of the characters, I think, their purity of belief, their honour.

Rick said...

Yes, "prepared mind" justifies a lot of luck. "I went with what was at hand, Lady Fortune preferring her suitors forward, and showing no favor to the rest."

Carla, you've hit on something so important about the rigidity of "show, don't tell." Sometimes a little telling can cover a lot of ground far more easily than trying to show it, or doling it out in bits and pieces. I would like to think, or hope, that stylistic preferences might change to allow a more expansive style of writing. Books, after all, are for people who want an alternative to the stuff on the tube or screen.

Radio/TV/film all involve (usually) a huge degree of abridgement. Consider that the standard rule of thumb in screenplays is one page per minute of running time - thus 120 pages for a typical feature film. The format is way different from prose text, of course, but still, a movie has only perhaps half to a third of what was in the novel it is adapted from.

I have been mentioning the older meaning of "romance" quite a bit, here and and Bernita's and Gabriele's, and surely there is other discussion out there as well. I'm a bit surprised that the older usage could still show up in a cover blurb in 1967, but perhaps British readers have more of a sense of the past, and the narrowing of meaning may have started as an American thing.

Carla said...

I quite like that as a beginning, Gabriele. Curiously, as publishers are re-issuing historical novels by 'old-fashioned' authors from the 50s and 60s (Alfred Duggan, Edith Pargeter, Jean Plaidy) and presumably making money on them, doesn't that suggest there's still a demand for this more measured style? Sometimes the publishing industry reminds me of the stereotypical 70s British retailer, "Madam, you're the 15th person to ask for that today, and I tell you there's no call for it!"

I don't think I've read Mr Standfast, Bernita. I must see if I can find a copy.

Rick, I didn't realise I'd said anything important, but I couldn't agree more. There's surely no future for books if they pretend to be inferior screenplays without pictures. Some people like to watch videos; fine. Some people like to read books; also fine. Some people (me) like both, for different reasons.

I wasn't aware of the one minute per page rule, but it figures. I listen to a fair bit of radio drama and it's very striking that a typical 45-minute play contains about enough material for a short story. Some books suit abridgement; I thought Hunt for Red October made a much better film than the book (and not just because Sean Connery was in it). Even my dad, who loves thrillers, said he got fed up with all the technical detail in the book, the author saying "Look, look, I've done all this research, and I'm going to tell you all about it whether you like it or not". The film cleared all of that out and just told you what was important about the caterpillar drive and why it was significant. But many books suffer terribly in the transition from page to film.

'Romance' - alas, can't get the full OED online any more, but the Concise Oxford Dictionary has the older sense as meaning #3 and the 'love story' sense as meaning #4. Maybe the dominant 'love story' meaning could be derived from a publishing industry category? Anyone know how the RNA and RWA define 'romance'?

Rick said...

Besides the re-issues, there are some other hints of willingness to allow older styles, for example Steven Brust's The Phoenix Guards. Which I've seen described as the best English translation of The Three Musketeers (apparently all the actual translations are pretty clunky).

I think the dominance of the love-story meaning of "romance" started with everyday language. After all, if someone says they had a romantic evening, they probably don't mean they captured a galleon or won a swordfight. ;)

But I just looked in my old Oxford Universal, an OED abridgement dating to the 1930s, and it does not even include a definition specific to love stories, love affairs, etc. So the modern everyday sense doesn't seem to have developed till midcentury or later.

I do not know when the publishing category emerged, but I would say by the 1960s. I seem to remember Harlequins existing then, not that I was paying any attention, since they had neither spaceships nor frigates on the cover.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, Carla,
it's only the beginning of Ciaran's backstory I have in my files.

It goes on to tell that Niall Noigiallach attacks the Picts and Dál Riatans and demands Caolán to be delivered as hostage. There's also some troubles with the Picts, esp. Eoghanán son of the Pictish chief who doesn't get along with Ciaran. Next is that Stilicho sends reinforcements to the Wall, and during a fight there Comghail is taken captive and offered a position as Roman auxiliary officer (which establishes the connection between Ciaran and Stilicho). Thus, Ciaran suddenly finds himself in the position as heir of his uncle, and he is not prepared to take up that responsibility. In a struggle for renown and the favour of beautiful Islena, he and Eoghanán keep attacking the Romans until one day a punitive expedition endangers his uncle, and Ciaran offers as exchange and becomes a hostage of the general Gerontius. He's not exactly unhappy about it because that way he can learn more about the hated and admired Romans.

The actual novel sets in when the Romans leave Britain, and Ciaran by an intrigue of some Romans, enemies of Gerontius, becomes a slave.

I think it is better to sneak that backstory in than to present several pages of it at the beginning. The conflicts with the Picts are a subplot in their own right - Eoghanán is going to play a considerable role in the book. And Comghail, now a Roman officer, will establish a not unimportant plot device.

The imaginary 1960 beginning of Kings and Rebels I present on my blog is different because it's much shorter, only three paragraphs of backstory directly connected to the events. I never wrote a backstory start for Roderic because I'd then also need one for Kjartan, and I didn't see a way to manage that. Here it's in fact not only a convention of modern writing, but a necessity to start the book with an event.