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Recently, there have been a couple of TV adaptations of favourite books and, although both were very enjoyable, there was a marked difference in the way the original storyline was dealt with.

All The Light We Cannot See

A couple of nights ago, we watched the final episode of the Netflix adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. Just four episodes in length, I thought this adaptation was superb from opening scene to closing credits. The cinematography, lighting, costumes, and casting for me, were all flawless but above all, the adaptation stayed true to the novel.

All The Light We Cannot See

In the hands of the British screenwriter and director, Steven Knight, Anthony Doerr’s story came to life exactly as he had set it to the page. Beautifully shot in Saint-Malo, most of the plot is exactly as I remember it in the book apart from the final few scenes where Knight has changed the storyline to better suit the mini-series format.

Whenever we read a novel, we form pictures of the characters in our own minds and, depending on the richness of descriptors the author supplies, our pictures may either line up with, or completely jar with someone else’s.

Certainly in the case of All The Light We Cannot see, the characters lined up perfectly for me. Mark Ruffalo was the right balance of man-of-science and loving father; Hugh Laurie was perfect as the ‘Professor’; Louis Hoffman was just right as Werner; and Aria Mia Loberti was an inspirational cast as the blind teenager, Marie-Laure.

But the character that stole my heart right from the first episode, was Nell Sutton who played the young Marie-Laure. This blind seven-year-old from Gwynedd in Wales, was absolutely charming and I defy anyone who watches the series not to instantly fall in love with her. She perfectly embodied the brave, cheeky young Marie-Laure, bubbling onto the screen alongside Mark Ruffalo in a performance to melt the coldest of hearts.

Throughout, the adaptation perfectly captured Doerr’s juxtaposition of love versus fear; the beauty of pre-war Saint-Malo with the post-war devastation of the city; and the bravery and selflessness of the resistance with the brutality and heartlessness of the Nazis as so menacingly portrayed by actor Lars Eidinger in his portrayal of Reinhold von Rumpel.

Overall, as TV adaptations of favourite books go, this for me was a doozie.

Lessons in Chemistry

By complete contrast, we’ve also recently watched Lessons in Chemistry which aired on Apple TV.

Lessons in Chemistry

I absolutely loved this novel by Bonnie Garmus and when I reviewed it back in May, I expressed some doubt as to whether Brie Larson who was cast as Elizabeth Zott, would be right for the role. As it turns out, Brie Larson was one of the best things about the adaptation (the other being the gorgeous 9-year-old Alice Halsey who plays Mad Evans, Elizabeth’s daughter) which, although it made for good TV, strayed so far from the book that I feel it lost a great deal.

Adapting the character of Six-Thirty, Elizabeth and Calvin’s remarkably smart and eloquent dog, for TV was always going to be a big ask and luckily, the directors (note the use of the plural here) clearly thought so too and decided to downplay the dog’s role in the mini-series. Interestingly, the loudest public objections to the adaptation from fans of the novel are around the portrayal of Six-Thirty.

But smart dogs aside, as TV adaptations of favourite books go, this one was a fail for me and the biggest disappointment was the unapologetic corruption of the storyline.

Bonnie Garmus’ novel is a spotlight on the blatant sexism of the ‘Fifties which refuses to recognise the intelligence of women or their right to a meaningful career. The producers of the TV mini-series have managed to downplay that sexism alongside the much bigger inequality of race, introducing an entirely new character and new storyline tackling the racial discrimination of 1950s US Black communities.

In the novel, Elizabeth’s neighbour, Harriet Sloane, is a 55yr-old woman with grown children and is trapped in an unhappy, abusive marriage. She’s also White. In the TV series, we are introduced to Harriet Sloane the thirty-something, Black legal aid who has two small children and a loving, supportive marriage with a doctor .

That’s fine – so far, no problem, except that TV’s Harriet is fighting a City Hall proposal to run the freeway through their predominantly Black neighbourhood. Now we have a whole different and competing storyline to Elizabeth Zott’s fight against systemic and endemic sexism, and it’s a fight that is always, and rightly, going to carry more weight.

As much as I still enjoyed Lessons in Chemistry, I feel that the Directors showed little respect for the writing of the author, taking her original storyline and quirky humour and using it as a vehicle for their own ambition. They interviewed Aja Naomi King (who plays Harriet Sloane) for a role in a different production and liked her so much, they re-wrote the character and invented an entire new storyline, to accommodate her.

As an author, I wouldn’t be happy with that. But then again, if my bestselling debut novel was about to become a TV mini-series on Apple TV, would I risk everything and put my foot down? In an interview with Bonnie Garmus in this week’s Saturday Guardian, the author admits she’s ‘disappointed’ with the result but is pragmatic enough to acknowledge that, at the end of the day, it’s an ‘adaptation’ and she’s happy to live with that.

Maybe it’s just me (precious, much?) but I think an author’s work shouldn’t be tampered with to that extent. If a director feels a change to the plot is necessary in order to satisfy a particular format then, as long as they work with the author to sensitively make those changes, that’s perfectly acceptable. But to ride roughshod over the main theme of the book just to accommodate the whim of the Casting Director?

Incidentally, Bonnie Garmus published her debut at the age of 66 years. Just saying.


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