Adapt or die

In the battle of the Birdsongs, telly nicks it - just.

Adapt or die, goes the old saying. But in the case of Birdsong maybe it's adapt and die. I've now sat through versions made for the stage (Comedy Theatre) and made for TV (BBC One). In my head this was a Day of Judgement, a Sky Sports Super Sunday. Which one of the two great loves of my life (theatre and telly) would fare the best, or die the least? Showtime!

The adaptation in question is that of Sebastian Faulks's 1993 novel Birdsong. Trevor Nunn had a crack at it a full year ago; I had to wait untill this weekend to get Abi Morgan's BBC comeback. Okay, so it was a really long day.

The book tracks Edwardian Stephen Wraysford's doomed love affair with Isabelle, an unhappily married Frenchwoman in Amiens, before it pitches our damaged, dislocated hero into the horror of the Somme. It's the time-honoured pairing of Eros and Thanatos: sex and death. The carnal turns to carnage, and roiling sex scenes give way to the equally intimate spilling of blood and organs on the battlefield.The novel striates highly personal testament with the sheer statistical might of the First World War. It's a tough brief for both stage and small screen.

Trevor Nunn plied the route of a clunking and rushed literalism. If the book mentions a rose trellis, it's duly cranked into place. If the gendarmerie swarm across the pages, alors the Keystone Kops sont arrivés on stage. The epic sweep is swept, tidily, into Stephen's mouth. Poor Ben Barnes as Stephen must curate history for us, as well as get on with being broken and detached.

TV director Philip Martin nabs a few of theatre's tricks for his scenography. It progresses by synecdoche: the battlefields are lightly suggested. We're shown a detail and we extrapolate the rest, like a wallpaper repeat (my only gripe would be that Ypres looked like the sun-baked Med). Amiens is not much more than a trick of the light (Mr Nunn please take note). Where both adaptations fail, however, is in Faulks's monstrous tunnels under the trenches. No visuals can possibly match a reader's imagination; they shrink and fix into what Joyce snappily called "the ineluctable modality of the visible" (pay attention at the back, Trevor).

Then, ooh la la, there's all that sex. As the lovely Kurt Vonnegut says: "The most popular story you can ever tell is about a good-looking couple having a really swell time copulating outside wedlock, and having to quit for one reason or another while doing it is still a novelty."

In Faulks's version of the most popular story, Isabelle is a soft pat of inert womanhood who needs a Lawrentian reboot. She's a Sleeping Beauty to be, literally, pricked into life. Theatre took the embarrassed vicar approach and ignored the entire messy business. After this Trevor Nunnery, it was good to see the BBC at least have a go at scenes of consensual sex. There was something about the lovely imperfection of Clémence Poésy that somehow made Isabelle less of a cypher: that shocking ink-spattering of dark freckles; that guarded look in her eyes which kept her - despite all the bonking - actually impenetrable.

TV's final, imperious slap to stage is the close-up. The camera can gorge on tiny details, like the erotic brush of two ankles. Against this the theatre seems operatic, mannered. Televisual Birdsong was really all about the close-up on the lead actor's face. In Eddie Redmayne we have a translucent, lambent Stephen. A jolie-laide, as the French say of their women, with a great grouper fish mouth, he is more reactor than actor. His face clouds and clears like the weather. He is enormously watchable.

Bravo to Abi Morgan for her confident chequerboard restructuring (love; war; love). But despite having more time and more resources than the theatre, this show also suffered from abbreviation sickness. When you take the events of Stephen's life at a rolling gallop, you are left with a blur of melodrama. Characters flatten to clichés (the plucky Tommy, lions led by donkeys) and lines turn over-weighty, "There is nothing more, sir, than to love and be loved!" Viewers are also treated as birdbrains by the music, which helpfully semaphores sad bit, sexy bit, with all the subtlety of Children in Need.

On this particular Super Sunday it's a one-nil victory to telly, but the match was a bit scrappy, to be honest, the lads done all right but at the end of the day could have gone either way.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear