The concluding part of the BBC’s grand adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong struck some emotional chords but ultimately felt like a sanitised version of the book’s raw honesty.
This adaptation has been swamped with praise from virtually all corners. It has a lot going for it, with fresh faced young leads making a name for themselves in Hollywood, lavish locations and high production standards. But for some reason I never really embraced it as I would have liked to.
Silly little things irritated me. For example the sun drenched trenches. We had to wait thirty four minutes for some appropriately miserable rain in this second episode and it turned out to be nothing more than a slight shower. There was a similar lack of precipitation in the first half. Granted the Somme offensive took place in the summer but Birdsong as a whole tracks Stephen’s progress through the entire war. More than the lack of rain, it was the constantly bright blue sky that unsettled me. I’m sure the outlook didn’t appear quite so sunny to the men.
Predictably the Somme sequences reined in the scale of horror and death presented in the book, although it’s impossible to tell whether this was an artistic choice or one necessitated by a lack of extras or BBC sensibilities. The setup to the battle worked well and I felt a truly moving attachment to the story for the first time, although this was largely squandered by the underwhelming brevity of the “big push” itself.
The key scenes with Jack Firebrace and Isabelle that followed were also disappointing in one way or another, meaning that the story fizzled out somewhat for me. However thanks to impressive period detail and a mostly assured performance from Eddie Redmayne Birdsong remained a worthwhile watch. In the end my hazy, idealised recollections of the book hindered my enjoyment of the story but there was little wrong with it overall.
Exeter graduate Abi Morgan has hit the big time of late, penning scripts for a number of high profile projects, with mixed success. In my view the dementia driven structure of The Iron Lady didn’t work at all, leaving Meryl Streep’s eerily accurate portrayal of Britain’s only female Prime Minister as the film’s only saving grace. Shame, her collaboration with Steve McQueen, missed out on Oscar nominations despite significant critical buzz. The Hour, set in a BBC newsroom covering the Suez crisis, was enjoyable but also not without fault.
She continues her preoccupation with the past and narratives that flash backwards and forwards in time with a long awaited adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ bestselling Birdsong. Her task in bringing to life one of modern literature’s most talked about and analysed books was daunting. The filth of the battlefield and an illicit affair had to be conveyed in equal measure, and in a manner fit for broadcast on the BBC. A balance had to be struck between the horror of war and the urgent beauty of love. The book is so adored by many because it got the mix right and reconfigured the way we think about the trenches with a hefty dose of humanity.
That said the book was not perfect. Morgan wisely chops away completely, as a previous stage adaptation also did, the sections where a modern day granddaughter pieces together the story of her war hero ancestor. The action of the plot in general is accelerated and streamlined. But inevitably something essential that gave the novel such emotional resonance is lost.
Morgan chooses to flit between the pre-war and battle scenes of the book. By the time we reached the trenches in the novel we were already immersed in Stephen Wraysford’s life but here we do not care enough when we first see him onscreen, in inexplicably sun baked trenches, already a hardened veteran. Eddie Redmayne is convincing as a soldier, less so as a lover. Harrowing at times, touching at others, this adaptation didn’t seduce me in the pre-war scenes of intense romance.
I used to be a massive fan of Sebastian Faulks. And I’m still a fan. But as with most things greater wisdom comes with age. Faulks is far from a faultless writer, despite the eagerness with which I devoured his works and the undoubted merits many of them have. With Engleby, a disturbing first person narrative, he proved he is capable of versatility. But many would accuse him of churning out almost identical historical tales. Birdsong was the perfect fusion of history and literature, but other novels have been weighed down by excessive research. Balancing storytelling and a fascination for history is a problem I sympathise with greatly, but nevertheless a damaging weakness. However he seems to take to presenting rather naturally.
Last night the first episode of a new series entitled Faulks on Fiction aired on BBC2. Overall I found it immensely enjoyable and refreshing to see such a marrying of literature and history given pride of place in the television schedules. It focused on enduring, iconic characters of fiction. Faulks and those he interviewed made various insightful and valid points. But the programme was also often necessarily simplistic. On the whole this didn’t matter because it allowed an engaging chronological sweep; history through the lens of characterisation. What did matter was the weakness of the entire premise behind the series.
Faulks argues that characters can be divided into heroes, villains, lovers and snobs. This first episode was on heroes. And you can’t help thinking Faulks himself doubts the strength of his point. The programme works best when it’s simply exploring great characters, not when crudely grouping them together; categorising and labelling in a forced, basic manner. Some of the staggering generalisations really undermine the more thoughtful, original points Faulks makes.
In interviews Faulks has piqued the interest of many by classing the character of James Bond as a “snob”. In many ways this seemed like a publicity stunt to hook viewers. But if Faulks genuinely believes this it might explain the disappointment of his tribute Bond book, Devil May Care, when he was supposedly “writing as Ian Fleming”. Faulks cites Bond’s love of brands as the reason for his snobbery instead of heroism and would no doubt, if pressed, point out Bond’s sexist attitudes too.
The fascination with brands and even the outdated prejudices are products of the time and the author, not the character of Bond. Fleming peppers his narratives with luxurious products to stimulate the rationed masses of 1950s Britain, not purely for Bond’s love of them. The moments of prejudice are also clearly when Fleming’s own voice shines through, over and above that of his adored creation. Having watched this episode, Bond would undoubtedly have slotted in alongside countless other flawed heroes.
My views on the programme pale into amateurish bias when set against those of a fellow blogger however. Last night an interesting, thought provoking, funny and spot-on live blog analysed Faulks on Fiction as it happened. The start of the post suggests doubts in this particular reviewer’s mind; doubts I believe to be absurd given the depth, accuracy and skill behind previous entries. Read and support this valued writer:
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