OPINION Fflur Dafydd

NWR Issue r10

The Library Suicides: Page to Screen

Writing an adaptation of your own novel is like performing appendectomy on yourself.

Calder Willingham

Willingham’s sentiment illustrates perfectly the strange, disorientating, often dismembering process that a novelist has to undergo in order to adapt their own work for the screen. Novels, I now understand, do not make the best screenplays; they are too expansive, too detailed, contain side journeys, digressions, a pace that builds and slackens. The feature film doesn’t want to digress, to roam – it certainly doesn’t want to slacken. It wants to focus. The gatekeepers of the screenwriting process frown upon the excess of a novel, the seeming indulgence of a novelist. The novelist is constantly asked questions such as: but whose story is it? What’s at stake? Everything’s at stake, and it contains many stories, that’s the point, comes the defiant, know-it-all, first timer’s reply.

‘The demotion is severe,’ Ian McEwan says of screenwriting for novelists, and it is a world in which the novelist’s perspective will never, ever be valued.


It is this very notion of condensing the many and everything that makes the transition from novelist to screenwriter so problematic; and even more so in a case like this, when an offbeat, dystopian novel like Y Llyfrgell needs be shoehorned into a straight thriller like The Library Suicides. Novels do not start their lives hoping to be films. Novels are novels: written joyously and tortuously as complicated, elaborate affairs. Short stories, on the other hand, with their quiet, distilled essence and open structures, are always full of cinematic potential. Consider the brooding atmosphere of The Birds or Don’t Look Now, two films adapted skilfully from the short stories of Daphne du Maurier. Hitchcock’s Rebecca, meanwhile, based on du Maurier’s celebrated novel, probably only makes a good film if you haven’t read the book: otherwise, what effect does the earth-shattering central twist have? What surprises are there still in store?

With this in mind, director Euros Lyn and I set out to make a genre thriller out of the dissected carcass of Y Llyfrgell. It could no longer be the multiple narration I had so carefully constructed all those years ago, shared equally between the voices of the twin librarians, Eben the biographer and Dan the security guard. It could no longer be the strange, dystopian world in which a siege can happen in the middle of the day, where tens of people are taken hostage easily, without intervention. It could no longer be the futuristic world where books by male authors are dissolved in the basement of a library, at the request of a female-dominated government.

In the psychologically real present of the genre thriller; the narrative became the clear, unified story of the twin librarians, Ana and Nan. It made their grief, their desires, and a quest for the truth the central drive of the narrative. And although the novel takes place during the day, in another act of dismembering my own story I decided to hide the sunshine of the dystopian world, making the whole filmic story happen during a night shift – mainly in the name of logic. For films owe their lives to logic in the way novels do not, and in the logical ‘real’ world – audiences want to know how those oddball twins are going to get away with it. They want to know why no one interferes or even question when the police (perhaps even the notoriously inept Mathias of Hinterland fame – it is Aberystwyth, after all) are going to turn up. And from that point onwards, as my day faded into night, I knew I had killed the absurdist, dystopian world of my creation. My creative appendix was well and truly dug out: I was covered in blood, wondering how to put myself back together again.

And yet, if I could not remain true to the story, I could at least remain true to the book’s ending and above all its themes – memory, identity and culture – all those things somehow found their way into this new story I was crafting, where the twins wandered around in the nebulous dark, where their grief for their mother was real and devastating, and where there were thrills and reveals that truly surprised me. And the more I worked on the thrilling aspect of the story, the more I realised how urgent it was for the situation to have realism and logic rather than being dystopian or strange, because the audience’s thrills came from believing they were indeed part of this ‘real’ world that was under threat. They were on Ana and Nan’s side in a way they had not been within the pages of the novel: they now cared for them enough to believe that their impending tragedy was also theirs. And I found myself weeping as I wrote Nan’s final speech in the film, while I had remained dry eyed at my laptop all those years ago, devising her denouement in the novel.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of this long, drawn out creative appendectomy is the character of Dr Eben Prydderch. The tortured, rather ridiculous academic I came to love as I wrote him, was unwilling to go on this journey with me. In true Eben fashion, he stayed sulking somewhere in the depths of the library, wetting himself repeatedly on CCTV, flicking through those diary entries for hours on end, his paunchy belly flapping over his velveteen trousers, destined to remain trapped forever in the pages of fiction. My ‘screen Eben’, according to some, is rather shockingly the villain they never considered his fiction counterpart to be. This again highlights the screenplay’s desire for archetypes instead of more complex or contradictory characters. Dan, the sexy, miscreant dope-smoking porter, is perhaps the only one who emerges from the pages of the book almost intact, bringing with him, thankfully, the offbeat humour that featured throughout the novel, which otherwise might have been lost completely.

As I nervously await the preview screening to the book’s readers at the National Eisteddfod on Monday (1 August), I can only hope that they will forgive the author for letting herself – and her novel – be dismembered in this way. I also trust that – for the sake of thrills – they will forgo their prior knowledge in order to embrace a new work of fiction that still has surprises in store. And while I fully acknowledge that taking out your own appendix and sewing yourself back together again isn’t a painless process, knowing you emerged from that process intact, with new skills to boot, is a thrilling thing indeed.

Fflur Dafydd is a novelist, singer-songwriter and screenwriter who writes in Welsh and English. Her credits include Parch (Boom Cymru for S4C), Y Llyfrgell, (winner of the National Eisteddfod’s Daniel Owen Memorial Prize, 2009), Twenty Thousand Saints and The White Trail. She wrote the screenplay for the BBC production Y Llyfrgell/The Library Suicides (based on her novel, Y Llyfrgell), which premiers in Wales on Monday evening (preview session with Q and A at National Eisteddfod Sinemaes, Abergavenny, 1.30pm) and goes on general release from Friday 5 August in Welsh-only and subtitled versions. Series One of Parch meanwhile, can be viewed again from 7 August on S4C at 9pm as four Sunday nightly double bills, while Series Two starts on 4 September on S4C at 9pm.

       


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