possibly impossible; adaptations which don’t adapt

In my writing class we’re looking at adapting text for radio. The most talked about adaption of the moment is Wolf Hall. The BBC have allegedly spent £7 million to make 6 hours of television. If I was a licence payer I’d complain. There must be lengthier returns on an investment of that kind  while still retaining some quality. Six hours isn’t even half a day.

Last week we listened to Casablanca. A 1943 radio broadcast. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Dooley Wilson are all there, plus additional explanatory text and a reduction in time from 102 to 25 minutes. You get to hear all the famous lines:

  • Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she walks into mine.
  • Here’s looking at you kid.
  • Play it again Sam.

Only the last one is a misquote. No one says it. Both Rick and Elsa say play it Sam not play it again. When it comes to the difference between truths and beliefs, this shows how easily wrongs get privileged over rights.


I did my homework and watched the film before so it was fresh in my mind. For me the radio version didn’t work. Too much of the story, of necessity, was missing while those who hadn’t seen the film reported confusion about the plot and characters.

When you make an adaptation, like Wolf Hall and Casablanca, something has to go. The question is how much can the parts of a whole still offer a holistic experience.  For me, Hillary Mantel has the art of preciseness, is expert at using the minimum of words for the maximum effect. I liked reading Wolf Hall but two episodes in and 4 to go, I’m feeling disappointed with the TV series.

The media reports a drop in viewing figures for episode two of Wolf Hall. The critics are out; they don’t like the darkness, the flashbacks, the slowness, the history. Condensing large books into small chunks of film was never going to be easy and it isn’t yet clear if the BBC has financed a success or a failure. The attention to authenticity in terms of clothes, props and locations is no substitute for inadequate attention to narrative.

It’s possibly impossible. Maybe Casablanca was made to be watched and not listened to. Maybe Wolf Hall was written to be read and not watched.