Wednesday, 1 June 2016

TOM, TOBY AND ME by Penny Dolan

This post isn’t about a children’s book but it is about writing. At least. I think it is . . .
My news: recently I read a book. Yes, that thing. Not just any book. This was a special book. It was a “Book Group” book.  Aha!  

Now, as many of you will know, Book Group books can become a slight burden (especially when you should be busy writing something else) because not only do you read the book but you should absorb the plot and the characters and the setting and all the deeper issues and all well enough to be able to recall the novel at the next meeting, which could be several personal book-readings away on an avid book month. Despite the slight air of protest, I must add that such reading is a good & beneficial task for greedy-rush-through-the pages readers like me, too prone to skimming and forgetting.   
Last month, the book group book revealed something about character that I'm still pondering. The novel that had been chosen was CAPITAL by John Lanchester which is about the interwoven stories of several nationalities all living or working in Pepys Street, South London, at the very moment when ordinary, "cheap" terraced-house prices soar beyond a million and a big financial cloud is gathering and about to crash. 

The book was a rich read, especially in the year of Brexit or Remain, but that's not what I want to talk about right now.
Now, if there's a choice, I much prefer reading any book before seeing the film version; however this time I'd already seen CAPITAL on screen before I was given the book. Watching it in late 2015, I'd half-noticed vague criticisms about the actor chosen to play the role of the wealthy capitalist banker Roger Yount but hadn't pursued the grumbles to any named person.

Many other characters in CAPITAL are more admirable than top-of-the-heap Roger, who lives in the biggest, most-renovated house on Pepys Street with his elegant, avariciously awful wife and his two young sons left in the care of daytime and weekend nannies. Roger’s whole lifestyle is only be kept in balance by an expected million pound bonus which, one day, will not arrive.

Roger – bear with the detail, please - is described in the book as being over six foot four. He is the kind of man who can “fill a doorway”, physically fit and fairly good-looking.  Roger sounds the kind of handsome, rich everyman role that might perhaps - before The Night Manager -  have been played by Tom Hiddleston. 

In this visualisation, Roger’s story would be about one of the beautiful & entitled people who get their deserved come-uppance. We would never, really, be on his side. This suave Roger would be too visibly of the elite for the viewer to feel sympathy or warm towards him.

However - and here’s my main point – the actor chosen for the screen version was Toby Jones: a “hero” of short stature, an uglyish face and a hang-dog expression. Spot the difference? Do you feel the change in your feelings towards this character?

This “screen” Roger’s physical appearance suggested to me that he had got his position against the odds, that he was a bloke who had won through to a lucky position despite the elite of the Eton bankers. 

Therefore when Roger’s luck runs out, (partly through office politics and partly through his own ineptitude) I could feel some of the pity for him that I freely gave to the other characters who were leading much more desperate lives.

Subtle tweaks and changes were fed into the Roger story, as well as into the other characters lives, as happens in screen adaptations, but - to my mind - that Toby Jones casting balanced the story. His slightly comic looks positioned the screen version firmly in the world of gentle satire and comedy – as well as the world of small, individual tragedies – all of which made the televised CAPITAL work as a whole, positive experience for me, if not for everyone.

And the point of this ABBA post is?

The point of the hypothetical Tom/Toby switch is that I’m now thinking much harder about the physical appearance and the mannerisms of the many characters in my current work-in-progress.

Do my people balance, and if so, how? Do they fit into the main genre and help the mood I’m intending? Moreover, quite how am I making my people become different experiences for the reader?

And what is the right amount of sympathy to invest in a villain? Just now, I’m starting to see how easily the novel might become my bad guy’s story, instead of the story of the two main characters that I’m intending.

In short, am I writing a devastatingly cool “page-version” of Tom when I should be creating a foolish but sympathetic “screen” Toby?   

Time to look very sharply at all my imagined creatures. I think!

Penny Dolan


Joan Lennon said...

Excellent post - I'm off to do some sharp looking of my own!

Lynne Benton said...

What a fascinating post, Penny. Must have another look at how I portray characters, too - clearly what they look like can make a huge difference to the readers' perception of them! Hmmm...

Anonymous said...

What an interesting angle. Lots to think about here - not just in terms of my own writing, but also characters in other books and in TV adaptations too. Hmmmmmm.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm not saying that either version of "Roger" is right or wrong here, and certainly writer John Lanchester would prefer his tall, suave city-boy - and maybe not the inept version that gave a gentler tone to the whole work.

The contrast between these two Rogers just illustrated, for me, how the reading/viewing of a character affects the emotional mood of the story, despite there being so many other characters involved. Obvious, I know, but easy to forget mid-writing.

Emma Barnes said...

How funny, Penny. I saw the TV version (and enjoyed it) and was flicking through the first part of the book, which I hadn't read, and the difference in the physical description of "Roger" leapt out of the page and I did feel very startled...obviously the way he looked was an important part of how I perceived his character.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, Emma! I was quite glad that my two Capitals happened in that order.

Sharon Tregenza said...

Enjoyed reading your post, Penny. Thank you.