The perils of adaptation

For our third and fourth nights of ds106radio live tweeting, we listened to the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and a BBC adaptation of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice. The former was from 1948 and the latter from 1991, so again we had the contrast between the age of radio and the age of video.

Lux was a soap company that sponsored the radio series. This was common in those days, and is where the term soap opera originates. From the sound, it may have been recorded live in a theater. There was applause, which sounded out of place, at the breaks between acts. The announcer would do product promotion in the breaks, commercials much different from what we hear these days. There was a judicious but effective use of sound effects and transition music.

It was a problematic adaptation however. The movie is considered a classic now, and was very popular then, bit with audiences and critics. Hitchcock was recognized as a master film maker. I think the radio producers were intimidated by this. It really shows in the final scene. In the movie, it was very dramatic, but also very visual. It could not work with sound alone. With a little imagination, I’m sure it could have been re-written to work as sound, but that would have meant tampering with the climactic moment, which probably wouldn’t have pleased anyone.

“The book was better” is something commonly said about movie adaptations. It’s pretty much always true. Stanley Kubrick once said that you can’t make a great film out of a great book. I think that’s because what makes a book great is the way it uses written language, which gets lost in translation to film. It’s better to use a mediocre book so you’re not bound by the original. The radio version of Notorious ran into that issue.

You Only Live Twice adapted Fleming’s novel for the radio. While the movies took liberties with his work, the BBC appears to try to be faithful. But that becomes problematic too. In a book, we can read what the characters are seeing and thinking. It’s difficult to translate that to dialogue without getting awkward, as this program showed. Instead of following the “show, don’t tell” rule, the producers gave us some longwinded exposition and extended sequences of Bond thinking out loud. I should have previewed the audio before taking to the air, because it sounded like someone did an amatuer job of layering soundtrack music on top of the radio broadcast, too loud and in the wrong spots. Even so, we could still hear examples of how sound can convey setting and a sense of the action. Both broadcasts give examples of things that work, and things that don’t. We can take lessons from the failures as well as the successes.

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