Andrew Davies, probably the most prominent adapter of books into TV series is profiled in a recent issue of the Independent newspaper. This article is inspired by his latest script which adapted Tolstoy’s War and Peace into a 6-hour series on BBC that has been widely praised. The profile explains Davies’ methodology:
He is irreverent toward the original, fearless in his choices (he has no compunction about killing off characters or changing major plot points) and he always leavens the mix with plenty of humour. Give him a 19th-century novel and he is never distracted by the bonnets and top hats and general surfeit of period detail that can bog down lesser writers. His interests are more primal: [what] Davies has described as “sex, money and class”. Any Davies adaptation will foreground these three key elements. That is why they are so pleasurable for so many viewers. They have cultural integrity and snob appeal but they are sexed up too and often attract new audiences who wouldn’t go near the books. As the producer David M Thompson put it, he has a unique ability to “turn the apparently unadaptable into riveting television”.
Davies has mostly worked on adaptations for TV where the ability to spread a novel over several episodes offers more scope that theatrical film or stage adaptations.
One film he did work on was Julian Jarrold’s underrated 2008 big-screen version of Brideshead Revisited. He shared a credit on the film with Jeremy Brock, who has perceptive remarks to make about Davies’s skill in adapting the Evelyn Waugh novel. “I had the privilege of collaborating close up with his script and was able to see first hand how confidently and economically he bore down on a massive novel, Brideshead being one of the great classics,” he recalled. “I saw how innovative he is and, crucially, how unreverent he is of a novel’s provenance. I think that is one of his great gifts – he is unafraid. All of us screenwriters when faced with a novel like Brideshead Revisited feel a slight tremor, particularly when that novel has become one of the iconic TV series of its time.”
Of course, one feature of the earlier TV adaptation that made is “iconic” is that it made very few changes in Waugh’s original story. It was, in turn, such changes by Davies and Brock that resulted in criticism of the later theatrical screen adaptation and that have caused it to be “underrated”.