Roundup: Censorship and Adaptation

–There has been a colloquy in the provincial British press about racist language in Evelyn Waugh’s 1932 novel Black Mischief. This was begun in an article or letter by Michael O’Neill of Penarth that was reproduced from the Western Mail. O’Neill reviewed the critical reception of the novel after his recent reading. One group concentrated their comments on the comic content of the book, recognizing that much of it was at the expense of Africans but also noting that the British diplomats and officials in the African setting are equal opportunity targets for Waugh’s satire. Others felt that the repeated use of one particularly offensive word to describe Africans required in today’s cultural environment some censorship. O’Neill concludes:

It’s not just a question of vocabulary, but the use of certain words may send messages as to the opinions of the author and also what the political and social likings of the possible readers will be.

In 1932, opinions were definitely different from today, but the issue of the book I have is a paperback (Penguin Classic) which has seen several reprints in more recent years. The edition I have was of 1965, reprinted in 2000. Waugh died in 1966, and posthumous editions of Black Mischief could be amended, with the permission of the literary executors if necessary, the deletion of a few unacceptable words going a long way to giving that novel some greater respectability while at the same time one does not wish to tread clumsily on the toes of someone who was a leading creative writer whose novels as a whole have been greatly enjoyed by generations of readers.

The following day, Ray Jenkins of Cardiff offered this response which was reposted from the South Wales Echo:

Personally, I do not feel that it would be helpful to amend the text of Evelyn Waugh’s novels to remove offensive words and attitudes, as they provide a context for the world in which his characters live. Faulkner frequently uses the word to which I think Mr O’ Neill is referring, but I believe Waugh is far more problematic than other outstanding English novelists like Hardy, Forster, Graham Greene and the sadly underrated LP Hartley, perhaps because he was both a snob and the closest to the Establishment of his time.

Unless a text is intended to be assigned to school children, it would seem to me no further explanation or censorship should be needed, certainly not in editions sold to the public such as the Penguin edition Michael O’Neill was reading. Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn uses the same term frequently. Because of its relative importance in the American canon, it is more likely to be assigned reading by high school students. I can’t say whether there is a consensus among American publishers and educators, but I would hope that Twain’s now classical references are not removed from the text of non-school editions. This is a more serious dilemma for American educators and publishers than for their British counterparts given the comparative status of Huckleberry Finn that was written for a younger readership. Even if it means that Waugh’s book (never intended for sixth formers) doesn’t make it into A-level reading lists, that sacrifice is preferable to set a bad precedent by censoring it.

–William Boyd writing in The Sunday Times has reviewed the practice of adapting novels to produce screenplays. He begins with the observation of the dominance of adaptations in the film industry:

My own experience is typical. Of the 20 produced films, short films and television series based on my screenplays, 14 are adaptations. I have adapted novels by Evelyn Waugh (Scoop, the Sword of Honour trilogy), Mario Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter) and Joyce Cary (Mister Johnson). Not to mention adapting the lives of Charlie Chaplin and William Shakespeare and five of my own novels and three short stories. Adaptation is far and away the dominant form — original screenplays are inevitably the poor cousin, it appears.

He then describes four “elephants in the room” when comparing the quality of adaptations to original screenplays. The first and most obvious is the relative length of novels in relation to the time limit of films (usually 90 minutes/two hours):

It’s an elementary calculation to realise that most novels — even average-sized novels of 350 pages —won’t fit into the normal running times of films. As a result, most screen adaptations are in fact savage redactions of the novels or books they are based on. My Sword of Honour adaptation turned three medium-sized novels into three hours of television. A lot is necessarily missing. I would say that in the average adaptation at least 50 per cent of the adapted book never makes it to the screen. Already we are in a world of huge compromises. But there are more radical accommodations and impossibilities up ahead.

He goes on to describe the other three elephants in the cutting room, as it were, and wonders why with, all the difficulties, writers even bother with adaptations:

As a thought experiment, draw up a list of your ten favourite films. I would be surprised if the majority were not based on original screenplays. It’s certainly true of my top ten. Film — and I use the term as a catch-all to include television, or indeed anything shot with any kind of camera — is a wonderful, powerful art form, but most of the time, 75 per cent of the time, it is trying to be, or to mimic as best it can, something else: a novel or a short story, or a biography or an investigative newspaper article, and so forth.

But he does see some reward to be extracted from a successful adaptation:

The fact that, at the end of the day, a long novel has been rethought and reconceived as a good film (if you’re very lucky) is no mean achievement. We toil in an unforgiving vineyard, but sometimes the wine we manage to make can be heady.

In a comment to Boyd’s rhetorical question of why such a large percentage of films are adaptations, one reader noted that the answer was that adaptations were more likely to be funded than original scripts because they are deemed to entail less risk.

The Times in a feature length article by Andrew Billen considers several topics that will become conversation points in the new TV series of The Crown, appearing on Netflix next week. This one will play out during what have come to be known both as the Eighties and the Thatcher Years:

Before, there was high society and low. The Eighties created new league divisions at the top, and relegated those British untouched by the boom to something called the underclass. At the society’s zenith, inspired, as far as anyone can work out, by Granada’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, were the Sloanes.

These were the rebranded scions of the gentry, a generation of unapologetic brayers who called champagne “champers” or “poo” (after shampoo) and sprayed as much of it as they drank. They wallowed in their mostly inherited wealth, but did so, wriggling through the Eighties’ great loophole, ironically. Peter York and Ann Barr’s Official Sloane Ranger Handbook came out in 1982 and became a Ned Sherrin revue in 1985. If you didn’t like it, you had suffered a sense of humour failure.

Diana was a Sloane and never got the joke — which turned out in the end to be on her husband — either. Within a few years of the decade’s end she and her sister-in-law Sarah Ferguson had turned the royal family into a soap opera far more vulgar than The Crown. In the Eighties, however, their contribution was still significant. They had made our stuffy royalty into something glossy enough for fashion magazine covers.

–Waugh’s French publisher has issued a new edition of Pinfold. This is L’ÉPREUVE DE GILBERT PINFOLD, translated and with an introduction by Claude Elsen. It is issued in Robert Laffont’s Pavillons Poche series.

–Finally, The Independent newspaper polled its contributors to determine what were the best Biblical references that had been turned into book titles. One of the 10 titles was by Waugh:

9. Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh. Philippians 3:21. Nominated by Allan Holloway, Adrian Hilton and Ian Greenfinch.

Oddly, the quotation which appears as the books epigraph is from Alice Through the Looking Glass and not Philippians. Among the other titles selected were Stephen Fry’s Moab Is My Washpot and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.



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