Saturday 25 January 2020

Dracula and A Christmas Carol: Adaption, adaptation and evolution

Like many of us, I find it hard to cram it all in at Christmas. Never mind the food, booze and family, what I really want to do is read books, go for walks and maybe watch a bit of  TV.

 Okay, not so much the latter, it’s usually disappointing.  But two new adaptations really piqued my interest this year.  A Christmas Carol and Dracula. I love both those books so my instant thought was: Really? We’ve seen them before. How many versions? 

Yet, knowing who was writing them made me curious. Peaky Blinders and Sherlock respectively. Could  they manage to be both familiar and true to the books in spirit, yet imaginative and challenging at the same time?

Which got me thinking about stories old and new, how, even when they are the same story, or the same archetype at least, they not only can, but perhaps  must adapt, change and evolve.

How many stories are there? Is it truly limitless? Or is the myriad of pantones simply different ways of mixing the same three primary colours. Are we all simply playing the same notes, just not – as Eric Morcambe once said – necessarily in the same order?

Are there really seven stories? More, fewer, or for the Joseph Campbell fans, really just one? And is even that ‘hero’s journey ‘ overcomplicating it? Maybe it really as simple as “Someone wants something, someone or something stops them getting it. The hero/ine overcomes the problem and gets what they want, or – as with Dracula, or Scrooge -  what they need, or deserve, or both.  The End.”

I don’t know. I suspect no-one does, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for the seven plot hypothesis (I recommend Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots for a thorough exploration of this) and the stories that work best do play to these archetypes – which makes them eternal (hence the popularity still of Dickens’ and Stokers’ classics) and timely. Both belong very firmly to their era but have themes, which still resonate and are relevant to our times.
 So what the writers did, and arguably what we might all learn from, was to hold the essence of those stories, yet make them relevant for now.  And don’t we all have to do that with our own stories?  Respect the form; the archetypes that make stories what they are, yet (paradoxically) challenge them and shake them and come up with something new, for now, that speaks to young reader’s lives.  In short evolution.  It’s why I admire books such as Hilary Mackay’s  The Skylarks’ War, or   Jasbinder Bilan’s Asha and the Spirit Bird so much (both deserving Costa Children’s Book category winners). They are original stories, not adaptations, yet there’s a comfort in something familiar in those stories coupled with a real thrill for what is totally new.  They feel ‘classic,’ but really fresh at the same time.

For what it’s worth I loved both BBC’s A Christmas Carol and Dracula adaptations for the same reasons.

The latter was riotously entertaining, though I have mixed feelings about the third act modern setting. A thrilling twist, yes, but the first two parts worked so well precisely because of the gothic time/setting. It all became a bit Sherlock, or perhaps Dr Who in the end. Still, I loved the fun of it.

A Christmas  Carol was on a different level. A very serious, and in my opinion, brilliant drama; a lesson for our times without being too ‘waggy finger,’ a true tale of redemption, and with a heart wrenching final moment (no spoilers).

Modern and old. Familiar and new. There’ s something in that.


Sue Purkiss said...

Interesting. Very much enjoyed A Christmas Carol: thought it was really cleverly done. Haven't been brave enough to watch Dracula yet; haven't quite recovered from reading the book when I was about 13...

Susan Price said...

I'm afraid I found Christmas Carol very flat and slow compared to Dickens -- got bored and switched it off.

Loved Dracula, but then I love most of what Gattiss does. Dracula had great verve and pace, humour as well as scares -- and cleverly mirrored the Count's literary history from 19th Century novel through film and tv scripts. If Gatiss ever updates Christmas Carol, I'll be keen to see it.

Sue Bursztynski said...

We haven’t seen either of those here yet. What a pity!

I loved your one-sentence summary of all stories! It makes sense. I do have to say that Hero’s Journey always worked beautifully with my Year 8 students. First I introduced the idea that pretty much every adventure has the same basic story outline and we watched some film trailers as examples. Then I invited the kids to see if they could think of a film that fitted, and we watched - on YouTube - the trailers for those. Then I gave them a template, using a simplified Hero’s Journey. They came up with some amazing stories, or at the very least were able to produce a story when they might otherwise not have thought of one. One girl even wrote a 9000 word piece!

Chris Vick said...

Great to hear. Of course, it's only an outline. It won't gift you a story any more than using the form of a sonnet, makes for a great poem. But it IS useful; a framework to work with and deviate from. Thr irony is, since I discovered its power, I'm using it less and less.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oddly, Chris, I don’t use it for my own writing, but it works well for new young writers, especially those who need some structure, and they appreciate having it. What I HAVE done is use the template to see what I have already written and whether it fits, just for fun. Amazing how often it does fit!