Adapting novels for the stage


We go north, always north. His dogs are
dead, his supplies exhausted.
But we have a…compact we must keep.He lives for my destruction,
I live to lead him on.
Frankenstein!Dramatists are always
on the lookout for big stories. Sometimes,
we make up our own. Sometimes, we take other people’s
and make plays out of them.Reading a novel is a very different
experience to watching a piece of theatre.
It’s a form of plunder. You ransack
the old play to turn it into the new one.I knew that I wanted to change the book
into a piece of theatre.
The first thing we did was
we lifted all the dialogue from the novel.
We started to just use that as the text
and we very quickly realised
that doing that was deathly dull!It will be very difficult to take
almost any line from Mary Shelley, put it in an actor’s mouth
and make it sound good.Sometimes, in a novel,
there can be some fabulous dialogue
that you feel instinctively as
a screenwriter, “That’s not going to work!”
It wasn’t until we got rid
of Charlotte Brontė’s text and we said, “Let’s understand
what these characters are trying to say “then just use your own words.” That took a long time —
to find the language for the play.I think there’s a particular skill
in taking the language of another time
and making it sound plausible
to our modern ears,
but at the same time, not sounding modern.I don’t want it to sound modern. I want it
to sound like it could exist in 1818.
I want it to feel very clear and clean
and easy to speak for the actors. So it doesn’t feel like a novel,
it feels like spoken dialogue as people might speak now
if they didn’t swear or use slang! Or didn’t have iPhones!The grappling, wrestling process
is the hardest, hardest part of it, I think.
Any novel between 200 and 500 pages
is too big to put on a stage. You have less time to tell the story and you have to make radical cuts,
do terrible bits of surgery.It’s a very, very painful process.If I had my way, I would make
a piece of theatre that lasted 12 hours.
[LAUGHS] I wouldn’t cut anything!
But you can’t do that! I’m not allowed to!
However complex the plotting, there’s always
a fundamental thing of story — all stories are generally quite simple. Something happens to someone or they make
something happen and they want something. They either get what they want or get
something else they didn’t know they wanted. There’s usually that kind of progression
in any story. Stories with less characters
are easier to adapt. A story about three people is easier
than a story about 20 people.Our play is not exactly a two-hander, but
there are only two big characters in it —
Victor Frankenstein and his creature.There’s no Clerval. There’s no Justine.
There’s no Walton.
I think what you do is try and find
the dynamic of a scene.
In chapter five of the book,
Victor makes his creature,
is terrified when the creature looks at him,
runs away, then finds his friend, Clerval.
It would be possible to tell the story
of chapter five as a monologue.
Or you could tell it
with a lot of people involved
who aren’t necessarily
in the chapter that Mary Shelley writes.
You need to find your own approach.You have to use your instinct. You have to think
of moving the story forward.I’d say try and forget everything
you think you know,
try and forget everything
you’ve been taught.
Just look at the words on the page —
what is Mary Shelley actually saying?
Then look for your own way
in which to tell it.
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