The novel, the stage play and screenplay allow the writer sharply differing levels of artistic control over the work. David Lodge, who has had experience of all three, describes some of the pleasures and frustrations of adapting a play and a novel for televisionby David Lodge / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The dominant forms of fictional narrative in our culture are the novel, the stage play and the motion picture (including television drama). I have had some experience of all three. I have been writing prose fiction for more than 30 years and think of myself primarily as a novelist. But some years ago I wrote a stage play, The Writing Game, which has had three professional productions; and over the same period I have adapted my novel, Nice Work, Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit and The Writing Game, for television. Drawing upon that experience I want to explore what makes a writer tend towards one narrative medium rather than another, and what draws people to cross over from one to another.
The choice of narrative medium is determined by a combination of factors: innate or genetic talent; personal temperament as formed by personal circumstances; and the wider cultural/historical/institutional context in which the writer operates. On this last point, it is clear that if Shakespeare had been born in the 19th century instead of the 16th century, he would have been a novelist rather than a dramatist, because the Victorian theatre was simply not capable of accommodating a creative genius of that order. A confirmation of that judgement is the case of Dickens-a genius of comparable stature to Shakespeare, who became a great novelist, although his natural bent was towards the theatre. Dickens was addicted to the theatre, loved to act in and produce amateur theatricals and charades, and finally killed himself by enormously successful, intensely theatrical public readings of his own work. In the Elizabethan age, he would have been a dramatist rather than a novelist.
Likewise, the fact that so many British novelists have in the last two decades written original screenplays or screen adaptations of their own or other novelists’ work-something very rare in the 1950s and 1960s-has a great deal to do with the expansion of the television networks and their hours of broadcasting, the opening up of British television to independent producers, the shift in taste from studio-based drama (essentially theatrical in its conventions) to the more novelistic, location-based filmed drama, and the success of Channel Four as a commissioner of low budget movies of artistic quality, provoking the other channels to compete in the same area. These developments created a market for screenplays that could not be satisfied by a relatively small cadre of professional television…