I’ve just watched the 2007 TV version of Oliver Twist, starring Timothy Spall as Fagin, and it gave me a moment of satori.
First, let me say it’s a very good series, verging on excellent, not least because of the ambition and ‘bravery’ it exhibits. Everybody who takes on the dramatisation of a ‘classic’ knows they are up for potential verbal assault, and anyone who attempts to change a ‘classic’ knows that they will be reviled for it.
It’s a given that you cannot touch a ‘classic’ without being slapped down for it. Not because of the mistakes you make, but just for the act of doing it at all. It doesn’t matter how many savers you put on by way of apology – “inspired by…”, “loosely based on…”, or even a desperate, “based on characters by…” – you will be punished. In fact, even announcing your proposed project as purposefully “new and different” in the hopes of pulling some kind of pre-emptive strike will only make matters worse for you. You have already bet on the lose-lose horse.
If I was to announce right now that DANNY V1 is being considered for a graphic novel (it is), fans, detractors and even people who have only heard of the novel, not read it, would immediately start to surmise the end result: how in God’s name would you make a graphic novel of DANNY? And who would draw it? And how long would it be? And how would they get that past a comic shop’s doors? And will you see the sex? And, and, and…… The conclusion would, of course, be reached that it couldn’t possibly be as good as the original and they shouldn’t tamper with it, and why did they have to make a graphic novel of it anyway?
I’ve never quite understood the public’s constant carping on this or that proposed TV/cine production. What the hell do they imagine is going to be left for them to watch if all the directors actually took the criticism seriously? Working in an alternate reality for a moment, where writers and directors actually listened to ‘fans’, and the public in general, that would mean that we’d still all be watching Shakespeare, with men dressed as women and only seven basic Greek drama plots in circulation. After all, that’s what entertainment would be if we always “respected the classics” – static, stale and dead. Nothing would change. Allegedly this is what the public wants.
My arse. They wouldn’t know what they wanted if it jumped up and bit them.
But my satori. It was this. The 2007 Fagin was written by one Sarah Phelps, a markedly working class, blunt author who obviously has a very firm handle on what Dickens was about, and exactly what is not relevant – for want of a better word – to a modern audience. In short, she took away the niceties of Dickens pandering to a Victorian readership and updated the story to modern sensibilities. And very well she did it too.
Predictably, the audience rating on IMDB is only 7.3 (go along and give it more stars, if you’ve seen it – help creative justice be done, and annoy the hell out the ‘leave our classics alone’ crowd.) That’s a good rating, but not quite great, dragged down by every fourth thread on the discussion forum shouting stuff of this ilk (sic), “Is there any period of English history that [the BBC] will not insert a non European ethnic character in. Yes thats right they have done it again with Oliver Twist in which Nancy is played by African actress Sophie Okonedo. All part of the BBC policy of altering the perception of the past to fit its PC agenda.”
Dear God, in Victorian London there were no black people. Who’d have thought it?
Aside from the fact that peterking7777 obviously doesn’t have a clue about Victorian London, and that he really ought to learn about it before shouting his mouth off (when do they ever?), does it actually say anywhere in Oliver Twist that Nancy isn’t black? Unless there’s a description talking about her fair skin and peachy cheeks, she could have been black.
But why, I wonder, is that so terrible when in Lost in Austen, for example, the actress who plays Elizabeth Bennett is clearly way too tall, not just for Eliza, but for the Regency period at all. In fact, the actress is too tall for anything historical and she would never get her rangy modern frame into the tiny kid shoes and gloves of the badly fed, unsanitaryily housed ladies of the period. Where is peterking’s rant on that glaring inaccuracy?
The idea that departing from a character’s looks (unless they play an important part) when translating to the screen is somehow unforgivable is utterly barking, not to say unattainable. Of course, the use of terms like “PC” in peterking’s post tells you that what we have here is a (not so very) closeted racist rather than an academic purist, but he’s very far from rare.
It would be nice to believe that peterking is outraged on behalf of Dickens. Indeed, that all these Outrageds of Scunthorpe care so much about the purity of the author’s vision that they simply must rush to defend it.
Not true. The real reason behind peterking’s outrage is a whole hell of a lot more to do with what Dickens stands for: a view of the world that peterking wants to be true. In the good old days (of child prostitution and turpentine Gin) everyone was white.
It’s hard for us now to appreciate that Dickens was in any way controversial in his own time, and it’s true that historical context shows up the disparities and the weaknesses in his fiction. London in Victorian times was heaving with prostitutes. It’s hard, in fact, to overstate this. As a general rule of thumb, in any poor district or slum all the women were prostitutes, even the ones in ‘gainful employment’. Was this because the Victorians were randier than any era before or after? No, although they were more sexually repressed – make of that what you like. But the fact was, that if a woman (or child) faced starving, or having sex up an alley with a ‘toff’ – guess which choice won?
Is this rampant prostitution discussed in Dickens, dissected, revealed? No. Do you imagine that if you dramatised Dickens’ and had some of the poorer women, the ‘good’ ones, also being part-time prostitutes, that Horrified of Burnley would take that lying down, it being historically accurate and all? Would he hell. Suddenly peterking’s argument would do an abrupt body-swerve. No longer would it be “lack of historical accuracy” but “unnecessarily graphic”, and “an insult to a master of literature”, and “pure sensationalism”.
In the eighties I found a set of “Life and Labour of the People”, a rare Victorian work on the everyday lives of everyday Victorian pond scum. Unfortunately I sold it, because it was a great book. (That and one on food adulteration, which I also sold, another great book. Regret parting with them both.) But it painted a picture far worse than Dickens, with starvation, and lead poisoning, and squalor, and violence not seen since medieval times – and not since. Victorian London was detestable. That’s why Dickens wrote the books. He’d been there, at the arse end of reality. But, for better or worse, he’d realised that he had to tone it down for his readership. There was no way the educated classes of the time were going to read the truth about prostitution, and gonorrhoea, and child labour, and gin shops, and the general filth, depravity and disease these poor sods lived in. So he wrote his sentimental version, his cleaned-up version, where unmarried mothers die repentant, and women never get drunk and aggressive, and kind rich people rescue all the poor, but innately genteel, Olivers.
It’s this aspect of acceptabilising (ah, Americans are loving my verbification skills right now) the uglier aspects of life that made him loved then, just as it makes him loved now.
This is the same difference between Charlotte Bronte (the ‘nice’ Jane Eyre saved by wealth) and the not nice Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights – no-one saved by wealth; in fact, pursuit of gentrification is what ruins them all). This is why, when the world and her pink-coated Chihuahua cloned the romantic ideal, they all chose to rewrite Jane Eyre and not Wuthering Heights.
When Sarah Phelps came to adapt Oliver Twist she decided to gritty it up, make it more resonant for a modern audience: There would have been black low-lifes round the London docks – why not make Nancy a half-caste? Oliver comes from the work-house, he shouldn’t talk like he was educated at Eton (the norm for ‘stage’ Olivers). Bill Sikes should look like he grifted on the streets, he wasn’t born evil. Fagin should have a fragile mental state, facing anti-semitism at every turn. Worst of all, when Oliver is ‘saved’ by the rich, it might just be open to interpretation that he has saved his own neck at the expense of all those who get left behind. In short, a Dickens where the rich get rich and the poor get poorer, just like real life.
All hell promptly lets loose – even here in Aberdeen where Max found it unacceptable that Oliver doesn’t try to save Fagin, in fact promptly forgets him, in his hurry to get back to his nice rich family and his nice suit of clothes.
So, not only was that too severe a picture for Dickens’ England, it’s still too severe a portrait now. Who cares if it’s real, we want Happy Ever After. No-one has a right to mock romantic novelists for this, it’s all around us.
And this was my satori: it’s exactly the same problem that DANNY hits, over and over. Look at this mini-review from Goodreads about Cult Fiction Kaye gives one star just to the idea of DANNY, a short idiot’s guide (that’s the guide that’s short, not the idiots) to The DANNY Quadrilogy, where you only get a 20-odd page excerpt from V1. The rest of the book just talks about the ideas in DANNY, but this was still Kaye’s response. “Vulgar, graphic, explicit and in your face objectionable.” Because, of course, violent sexual abuse is never vulgar, graphic, explicit or objectionable. Usually it’s wistful, covered-up, politely worded and tasteful.
The only place it can be, in books, in films, on television. In the real homes of the degraded and humiliated, the abuser takes out his penis and shows you it – flagrantly and without apology. He does not turn his back, put out the lights or murmur endearments. In the real homes of the abased and degraded, the abuser uses spit, rubs semen in your eyes and makes you sniff the unwashed parts of his body. In the real homes of the hurt and wounded, the irrevocably damaged, the abuser pinches your skin, burns weeping sores into your labia and makes you drink noxious substances till you vomit, then makes you sleep in the vomit. You don’t get the privilege of tastefully concealing garments, privacy, decorum and the protection of your delicate sensibilities from words like fuck, cunt, shit, piss, whore, slut, pig, bitch, bastard, bugger, suck, lick, come, screw, poke and prod.
But, of course, Kaye is right, she shouldn’t have to be subjected to this outrage, because even although she didn’t read to the end of the copy (no “fine print”, she just didn’t click on the “read more” button before she rushed to sign up for her freebie; lazy Kaye) she did see that it was described as “gruelling”. Of course, Kaye took the Random House meaning of that word – “This book contains 2 nasty scenes where the word fuck is used”. How audacious of me to rewrite the meaning of gruelling back to its original meaning of harrowing, relentless, exhausting, difficult, severe, harsh, arduous, punishing and backbreaking.
But, of course, poor Kaye is just another innocent bystander in all of this brutality, a member of The Great Reading Classes who, I’ve rapidly come to learn, are not who I thought they were.
Being well-read does not educate you; it educates you in the way of books. And that is a very specific and circumscribed world. Believe it or not, it is nowhere writ (other than in every publisher’s house style guide) that when I, or anyone else, writes the truth we are not allowed to write THE ACTUAL TRUTH.
It may be the fashion or the taste to write it to suit your audience (victim faction), or your era (D.H. Lawrence, Dickens, William Faulkner), or the BBC (any ‘hard-hitting’ drama you care to name), but I am under no obligation to do that.
Even more unbelievably, this does not then make my book an examination of the class system (Steven Hart), or objectionable (Kaye), it just means that it’s my truth. It may not be your truth, or what you would like the truth to be, but it is the truth. And what’s more, my truth is far more deserving of that name than theirs. When they can produce police records that show me abusers do tasteful things, refuse to use bad language and are never explicit in their sex acts then I will accept their values about my work.
Until that day, I reserve the right to be on the side of Sarah Phelps, defend the use of black Nancys, be unsettled by Olivers who are just a little smug, empathise with Bill Sikes who are perversely sympathetic, cry for the arbitrary injustice towards Fagin and applaud the swearing and sluts in Deadwood.
If I may just quote from the acknowledgement (to Nora Roberts) in How to Write the Perfect Novel (I do like to quote myself, however indirectly; it was Salman Rushdie who actually said this), “It’s very, very easy not to be offended by a book. You just have to shut it.”
Of course, all this book shutting is doing nothing for my book sales. Damn. Guess I’m just going to have to do a Dickens and rewrite DANNY to suit the tastes of the day. I’m thinking a mini-series on Nickelodeon, or a Young Adult abridged version, 80 pages, say. Or maybe an MTV one-off special. No, a talking book, in Braille. I could circulate it to the Women’s Institute. No, the Tunbridge Wells Reading Group. Ooh, and the Daily Mail. They could give excerpts away on Sundays in Tesco’s, and we could get the Blue Peter presenters to act in it. Yeah, whatsisname would make a great John……….
P.S. That reminds me. Watching OT, I was forcibly struck by what a good John Tom Hardy, who plays Bill Sikes, would be. He’s not as powerfully built, but everything else is perfect, including the full mouth and psychopathic eyes. I looked him up to see what else he’d done and found he’s doing a Wuthering Heights with the same director (Coky Giedroyc – a woman, by the way). Oh, excited doesn’t begin to describe it. I am baiting my breath even as I speak. They better be releasing it on DVD. And those of you who have TV, please let me know if it’s any good when it airs…