Monday, December 12, 2016

Page to Stage

I've been reading Fingersmith on a hard deadline, almost frantically, because we had tickets to a new play at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square. I've read a couple of Sarah Waters books before--The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests--and loved them both, in very different ways. But I listened to them both as audiobooks, and I'm surprised to find that this made a difference in my enjoyment.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The combination of smart, twisty plotting and gorgeous, literary writing is really irresistible. But I think I might have enjoyed an audiobook more. Waters has a way of describing things perfectly, with such precise, clean, readable prose, but in great detail.  What I've found for myself is that when a narrator has a strong voice but there are parts of the story I find slow, the actor who's reading them can bring a lot to me.

But then, maybe I just felt the stress of my timeline, because of the play.  I can tell you that the play felt the stress.  The book is, not action-packed, but full of incident.  Each part builds to the next, and while you can slim them all down, you can't cut any of them--the introduction to Sue's life in the Borough at the beginning of the book is as important to the plot as it is to the flavor and character and can't be ignored.  It's a story of many acts, and plays may only have so many.

I have a few quibbles with the production, as well--they could have used amplified audio; I sometimes had trouble hearing through the accents--but mostly, it's that it felt like an adaptation.  There's something about watching an adaptation of a book you know, a feeling that they're trying to hit the important beats of the book, rather than make its own story.  I've always assumed this is because a book has a lot more space than a movie--you can't squeeze as much into a movie as you can into a book.  There are exceptions--Harry Potter movies work well as movies, in my experience.  But your standard BBC adaptation of a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel is more about hitting the moments you know--summarizing the story--than working on its own, sometimes.

This play suffered from that.  It hustled from plot point to plot twist, scrambling through the memorable lines and moments to keep them all in. There was also a bit of a problem with tone--they added a lot of humor, which worked well by itself to alleviate the grim tone of the story (which is not as pervasive in the book). But it made the whole thing feel very uneven, especially the secondary characters and some of the darker themes.

The book, though, is full of great twists and thrills, an enormous, ongoing tension, and a really sweet love story.  I wish I had read it at a time where I had more bandwidth to give it, or that I had listened to the audiobook. I'm going to position my next Sarah Waters novel more carefully in my lineup.

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