Tag Archives: Sarah Williams

The next chapter

A lot of noise has been made about how longform serialised dramas are the ‘new novels,’ with numerous episodes that keep audiences hooked until the very end. But what books are now coming to screen and how are they being adapted?

In the era of ‘Peak TV,’ it’s commonly overheard that serialised television dramas are becoming the new novels – one story told over multiple episodes. Indeed, some series, like Netflix’s House of Cards, even name their episodes ‘chapters’ while, like books, there are surely now too many shows made for anyone to claim to have watched them all.

Yet while this is a more recent phenomenon, books have long been the inspiration for, and basis of, many television series. And with the need of every new television drama to create some buzz at its launch and pull viewers away from whatever else they’re watching, plus the added bonus of a ready-made fanbase, it’s no wonder books continue to be snapped up for small screen adaptations.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Poldark, Castle Rock, Ordeal by Innocence, La Cathedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), Vanity Fair, The City & The City, Sharp Objects, Women on the Verge and My Brilliant Friend are just some of the series based on books that have been on television this year, with the eagerly anticipated final season of Game of Thrones due in April.

Also on screen in 2019 are Les Misérables, The War of the Worlds, Good Omens, The Rook, The Spanish Princess and The Name of the Rose, while His Dark Materials, The Luminaries, Alex Rider, The Butchers of Berlin, Lord of the Rings and Dracula are all in the works.

The Little Drummer Girl, the latest John le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory

Following the worldwide success of 2016 miniseries The Night Manager, UK production company The Ink Factory returned to John le Carré’s extensive catalogue of spy novels for follow-up The Little Drummer Girl, again for the BBC and AMC. Endeavor Content distributes. But those expecting a similar story would be wise to forget Tom Hiddleston’s rookie spy and Hugh Laurie’s ruthless arms dealer. In this adaptation of le Carré’s 1983 novel, Florence Pugh plays Charlie, a young actress who strikes up a relationship with Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), an Israeli officer who entangles her in a complex plot orchestrated by spymaster Kurtz (Michael Shannon).

After The Night Manager, Ink Factory co-founders – and le Carré’s sons – Stephen and Simon Cornwell sought another of the author’s works that played out on a cinematic level with a compelling story at its heart, but that was also quite distinct and different. The Little Drummer Girl fitted the bill.

“It’s a compelling narrative, it’s very anchored on the core characters and their progression through the story and it travels and evolves and has a complexity and richness to it that really speaks to longer-form storytelling,” says Stephen Cornwell. He believes the proliferation of book adaptations on TV is down to the fact that “great books tend to tell great stories,” and in turn, great stories attract great talent – from writers and directors to actors and everything in between.

“Obviously authorship and the awareness of titles also helps drive audience interest,” Cornwell continues. “It just feels like there are a lot of things converging right now that make adaptation, and particularly the literary form as the basis for longform storytelling, very natural and organic.”

Le Carré himself takes a keen interest in adaptations of his work, as his cameo as a waiter in The Little Drummer Girl will testify. He is happy for writers to reinterpret the story for the screen, rather than slavishly follow the fine details of the novel, Simon Cornwell says, noting that it’s more important to be true to the essence of the book than the detail of the plot. “A lot of that really starts with the importance of character. If you’re coming at this from the point of view of focusing on character, you begin to capture the core of the book and then you start to think about how you put that on screen.”

For Sarah Williams, the role of adapter is to be as invisible as possible, putting the author’s vision on screen with as little interference as possible. “When you’re dealing with a really good book, my note to myself is ‘invent as little as possible and try to present the story as authentically as possible,’” she says. “Keep as close to the book as you can.”

Sarah Williams has adapted The Long Song from Andrea Levy’s 2010 book

Williams first adapted a novel by Andrea Levy in 2009, turning in the script for BBC miniseries Small Island. She has now reunited with the author for The Long Song, a three-part BBC1 series produced by Heyday Television and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

“If you’re adapting Pride & Prejudice, you might favour your own take because it’s been done many times and everyone knows it. But I didn’t feel my take on this book was as important as this book,” Williams says of the story, set during the final days of slavery in 19th century Jamaica. “For me, that’s been the priority. That’s how I see it. Other people might read the script and think, ‘Oh Sarah, you’re all over this.’ But I don’t think so. People make a lot of fuss about adapting books, but all you want is all the best bits of the book in one place and put into a screenplay structure.”

The writer says working with Levy has been crucial to the adaptation process, most notably on condensing the life story of strong-willed slave July (Tamara Lawrance) – told over two timeframes – into a trio of hour-long episodes that also replicate Levy’s balance of drama and humour.

“Quite often it’s structurally complex to unpick, and replacing the structure for TV can be a challenge. But the emotional strength and that bittersweet tragi-comedic tone she has, it’s my favourite kind of thing,” Williams says. “For me, what she manages to do is to take you on a very emotional road that has pain but also laughter. There are some very funny moments but it’s never trivialising the subject matter.”

The producers behind Swedish spy thriller Hamilton have taken a different approach to adaptation, however. Jan Guillou published his first novel about the character, dubbed Sweden’s James Bond, in 1986, and more than a dozen have followed. But rather than creating a period drama setting intelligence officer Carl Hamilton in the midst of the Cold War, which was ongoing when the books were first released, DramaCorp-Pampas Studios is placing the character firmly in the present day during what might be considered a Cold War 2.0. Airing in 2020 first on Scandinavian streamer C More and then on Sweden’s TV4 and ZDF in Germany, Hamilton is distributed by Beta Film worldwide and ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) in German-speaking territories.

“This is the first time these novels have been adapted into a TV series. When pitching it, the idea was really to reboot the character, the universe, the novels and the stories for a serialised format,” says executive producer Patrick Nebout. “We had extensive meetings to find the essence and the core of these novels and, from there on, to develop an original story that is relevant to a contemporary audience. So it’s not an adaptation of the novel, it’s a new origin series based on the universe and the main character of Hamilton.”

The Office star John Krasinski in Amazon drama Jack Ryan

The strategy echoes that employed by co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland when they reimagined Tom Clancy’s action hero Jack Ryan for Amazon Prime Video, creating a series based on Clancy’s characters. A second season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was ordered by the US streaming giant before the first debuted in August.

Similarly, Hamilton is designed as a long-running series, with future seasons likely to leave the novels behind entirely. “In the first season, we pick things from different novels that really are part of the audience’s expectation. But then we will take the next seasons somewhere else,” Nebout says. “We leave the novels and find our own way. These series are also designed to not only touch Nordic audiences but also to travel, so we’re looking for the universal elements in the story and the characters.”

New adaptations aren’t just playing with the source material, but the traditional television format too. Italian drama Donne, based on Andrea Camilleri’s collection of short stories, plays out over 10 10-minute episodes on Rai Uno. Produced by Anele Production and distributed by RaiCom, it recreates Camilleri’s meetings and personal experiences with 10 women, recounting discoveries of seduction and sex as he attempts to “solve the enigma that is the universe of women.”

“The literary material was so rich to start with that the skill was neither to add nor remove, but only to enhance what was already incredible,” creator Gloria Giorgianni says of the adaptation. “That was the only difficulty, really.

“Creating original content is great, but adapting is even more challenging. Recreating the visual sensations of a book is an incredible challenge. But starting with a great writer, a book helps to have a set narrative structure and to have a world of reference at hand.”

Michel Bussi is the author of bestselling novels including After the Crash and Black Water Lilies, with the former adapted into a four-part miniseries by CPB Films for French network M6. Global Screen holds distribution rights. The thriller is set after a plane crashes in the Alps, with just one survivor – a baby girl. When two families claim the child as their own, a detective is hired to find out the truth.

Michel Bussi on the After the Crash set

Book adaptations are more popular than ever because “they offer rich plots and are generally more original than that usually offered on television,” according to Bussi, who adds: “Writers do not limit themselves to their imagination.”

But the author never considers a future adaptation when writing his novels, admitting to building “the most complex and twisted stories possible to give the producers a sleepless night, often using literary processes difficult to reproduce on screen. This forces the directors to be very imaginative.”

Bussi will discuss his novel with the writers at the start of the development process, but then leaves them “completely free” to take the project in their own direction. “My stories are based on some fundamental pillars that must be preserved. It is quite easy to agree on them with a screenwriter or a producer because they are a bit like the DNA of the story,” he says. “Then the removal of certain chapters or certain characters for the needs of the adaptation is often a necessary crime.”

Keeping the DNA of the source material was also essential in making Swedish drama Kristina Ohlsson’s STHLM Requiem, based on Ohlsson’s detective novels. The 10-part series, with five stories told over two episodes each, follows an unconventional criminologist solving cases as part of a special investigations unit within the Stockholm police.

Black Spark Film & TV producer Piodor Gustafsson says Ohlsson’s background working with the police has ensured gripping, factually accurate plots. Even so, “there’s a lot of things you have to take out because they’re inner thoughts, or events move away from the main character, so we have to simplify and create characters that work all through the 10 episodes,” he says of the drama, produced for TV4, C-More and ZDF and distributed by ZDFE. “There were a lot of changes but I believe we kept the main feeling in the books. Kristina’s very happy about it, so I think we did something right.”

Kristina Ohlsson’s STHLM Requiem is based on the Swedish author’s detective novels

Gustafsson says adapting a novel means “you always have to be very brutal in the beginning and only use what you think is extremely useful to build your series.” But then the director, in this case Karin Fahlén, can use the book to inform the visual style on screen. “We’re not dependant on Kristina’s approval but we want her to be happy, so she’s involved in reading the scripts, and also the writers ask her questions.”

Fahlén continues: “With good books, you get a universe laid out in front of you when you read them. I think that happens to all of us. I could only follow my own vision, what I saw, and then I had a close collaboration with the set designer and the photographer and we found we almost didn’t have to talk. Things flowed really easily and we found our universe.”

Kate Brooke is used to stepping into different worlds, whether it’s the early 1900s with Mr Selfridge, Renaissance Italy with Medici: Masters of Florence or creating a dark thriller in crime drama Bancroft. For her latest project, however, she plunged into a world of witches, vampires and demons with the adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s fantasy novel A Discovery of Witches. Produced by Bad Wolf for Sky1 in the UK, it has been renewed for second and third seasons following its launch this autumn.

This was the first time Brooke had dipped her toes into the fantasy genre, with a story that introduces a variety of supernatural species all living together in plain sight and addresses political and evolutionary issues that she says feel incredibly contemporary. There’s also a love story between lead characters Diana Bishop (a witch played by Teresa Palmer) and Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode’s vampire).

A Discovery of Witches didn’t lend itself directly to adaptation, however, owing to its first-person perspective and huge amounts of backstory that comes with each character. Brooke sought to introduce characters earlier on screen so they are already familiar by the time they become more central to the story. She also decided to give Matthew 50% of the narrative, which involved building the character beyond what was in the book. “But that’s fun for an adapter because you can begin to bring your own imagination and meld it in Debs’ world. Obviously I was always in contact with Debs about that,” Brooke says.

Matthew Goode and Teresa Palmer in A Discovery of Witches

What’s notable about many adaptations today, including A Discovery of Witches, is that they might have been considered too niche or even impractical to make several years ago. But the explosion of content on screen means networks are now more open to genre drama, particularly fantasy and sci-fi, than they were previously, while technological and financial advances also mean exciting new worlds can be realised with the cinematic quality audiences demand.

The rise of serialised television means books that come with deep mythologies can also be retold, with writers not forced to cram everything into a feature-length running time.

Brooke believes there’s a safety net to adaptations because people know the story has an end. “It’s much easier to commission an adaptation but I do think we need to continue to engage in new writing,” she says. “There’s so much content, there’s a fear that sometimes original pieces don’t push through.”

But Stephen Cornwell says original series and adaptations can inform each other. “A great adaptation can inspire someone to do a great piece of original storytelling,” he adds. “I don’t think they are in any sense in competition with each other.”

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Long lost history

The Long Song, based on Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, brings a untold period of British history to the small screen. Screenwriter Sarah Williams and director Mahalia Belo reflect on the story’s contemporary relevance and how the series blends tragedy and humour within a distorted narrative.

There’s something quite different about The Long Song – this isn’t your typical historical drama. In the opening seconds of episode one, the narrator explains as much, disrupting this story of a “crafty girl” working as a lady’s maid during the final days of the slave trade in 19th century Jamaica, under a false name.

Before the story has a chance to settle, the narrator sends us back to “the beginning,” with the camera panning across vast swathes of cane fields where black slaves are working tirelessly under the threat of their white master’s whip.

It’s a sign of how the three-part BBC1 drama, based on Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, will play out in the hands of screenwriter Sarah Williams and director Mahalia Belo, with all the drama and humour of the source material blending with dynamic camera movements, dual timelines and the vivid backdrop of the Dominican Republic, where the miniseries was filmed.

The plot follows a strong-willed young slave called July (played by Tamara Lawrance) who lives on a plantation owned by her odious mistress Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell). When a charming new arrival to the island, Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden), becomes the new overseer, July and Caroline are intrigued by his seemingly revolutionary determination to improve the plantation for the slaves and mistress alike.

It’s a story that has huge contemporary relevance for writer Williams, who says it highlights a period of British history that has been “glossed over.”

“When we think of slaves, we normally think of American slaves, or slaves in America and only think of the abolition of slavery, in which Britain led the world,” she says. “Just giving those people a voice and taking us to that dark corner of British history, you find it’s very complicated. It’s not so straightforward. I think there’s a good deal to be learned from the story as the same time as it’s really entertaining and packing a punch.”

It was producer Heyday Television that approached Williams about adapting The Long Song, with the writer having previously adapted Levy’s novel Small Islands for the BBC in 2009. The pair forged a “really good creative relationship,” with Levy offering notes at every draft stage. “I see my job as bringing her vision to the screen,” the screenwriter explains. “The dialogue we have is crucial.”

That has particularly been the case on this project, owing to the fact The Long Song is an “epic” book that has thrown up lots of questions over how to trim the story to just three hours of screen time and where the adaptation’s focus should lie.

Williams notes that Levy writes “very dramatic and funny things that, in their entirety almost, you can lift and put on the page.” That must be a boon for an adaptor, though in this case, matters were somewhat complicated by the fact the novel plays out across two timeframes. “So quite often it’s structurally complex to unpick, but the emotional strength and that bittersweet tragicomedic tone she has, it’s my favourite kind of thing,” Williams continues.

The Long Song focuses on the life of July, played by Tamara Lawrance

“It would have been hard for me to adapt a book on slavery that was unremittingly harrowing. I would have found it a hard watch, never mind a hard write. For me, what she manages to do is to take you on a very emotional road that has pain but also laughter. That’s why I respond to it so strongly. There are some very funny moments but it’s never trivialising the subject matter.”

The writer says the biggest challenge on The Long Song was to condense the timeline that spans July’s life, but notes that when she’s penning an adaptation, her job is to be as invisible as possible. Her role, she explains, “is to get Andrea’s vision onto the screen without interfering. When you’re dealing with a really good book, like this one, my note to myself is invent as little as possible and try to present the story as authentically as possible. Keep as close to the book as you can.”

That might be an approach that is at odds with many other adaptors, who may seek to reinvent or install some dramatic changes to the source material.

Williams would agree, were she adapting Pride & Prejudice, for example, as it’s been done many times before. “But I didn’t feel my take on this book was as important as this book. For me, that’s been the priority. Other people might read the script and think, ‘Oh, Sarah, you’re all over this.’ But I don’t think so. People make a lot of fuss about adapting books and all you want is all the best bits of the book in one place and put into a screenplay structure, which I think we all know by now.

“It’s about finding a beginning, a middle and an end, and however many acts you think it is. You’re guided by your instincts.”

The writer admits she had to make some tough decisions about what to keep or cut from the novel, but says the spirit of the book and its characters are alive and well. That was particularly important in terms of the slaves, who “weren’t just a collection of faceless suffering humans. They were individuals with charisma and humour; they were honourable and dishonourable”

Agent Carter’s Hayley Atwell as Caroline Mortimer

Williams continues: “What Andrea wanted to make clear was they didn’t see themselves as victims, and they had a huge amount of spirit. That’s what we’ve also tried to do in the screen version – to show the variety and the spirit of the characters in the book. They’re not all, as is sometimes portrayed, noble and wonderful people. They’re just as flawed as the rest of us, so that was a great pull for me. There’s a great complexity and nuance to the way she draws her characters. So everyone is flawed in the book, including the heroine.”

Williams says she couldn’t have asked for a better director than Belo, whom she believes has an “amazing visual style.” The writer adds: “She’s a really strong director and I think she’s really one to watch. She’s going to have a fantastically bright future.”

Belo came to the attention of The Long Song’s producers after Ellen, her acclaimed 2016 one-off drama for Channel 4, led to her winning a Bafta award for breakthrough talent the following year. Belo was sent Levy’s novel by exec producer Rosie Alison, though she subsequently made six-part BBC drama Requiem and had been planning a feature project when The Long Song came around again. “This narrative, this story, I couldn’t not do it,” she says. “Andrea seemed to want me to do it as well, and this story really needed to be told. That feeling was overwhelming and it’s scary because it’s so important.”

Like Williams, the director knew about slavery mainly from lessons about US history and not about the British involvement. She also finds the story relevant today, particularly following the Windrush scandal that saw many people – members of the ‘Windrush generation’ who arrived in the country from Caribbean countries more than 50 years ago – wrongly deported from Britain.

Mahalia Belo

“It’s relevant and I think it’s scary. This story should have been told a long time ago,” Belo says. “It should be in everybody’s consciousness. Britain’s wonderful and brilliant but it’s done some atrocious things, and those things can be healed if they’re talked about.”

She says The Long Song’s non-linear format makes the drama stand out, while Williams’ scripts presented a different way of telling a story, “which is quite exciting for me to get my teeth into.”

On set, Belo reunited with long-time DOP Chloë Thomson (Requiem, Ellen), with whom she came through film school. The pair have established a shorthand in terms of looking at the perspective of a scene, its tone and how to capture characters and their emotional state.

That The Long Song was also her first period drama presented some new challenges for Belo, not least working with horses. “I was always waiting a long time for a horse,” she jokes. “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s get on the horse and go.’ Two hours later, ‘We’ve got the horse.’”

Time was spent ensuring historical accuracy with costumes as well as finding period buildings and the right locations, while the setting of the drama also informed Belo’s filming style. “There’s a formality that can be quite fun for a period piece because, if you upend it every now and again, you actually really feel it, which I found quite fun,” she says. “You can find something a bit more modern within a period drama and pay your respects to period drama.”

The Long Song, which is distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution, was shot over seven weeks on location in the Dominican Republic, which Belo describes as both “difficult and brilliant.” She found support from a willing crew that was heavily invested in the project, working in an environment that boasted vast cane fields, forests and tropical landscapes, as well as an assortment of wildlife.

The Long Song will launch on BBC1 on December 18

“One thing I would have liked would have been to be able to get a bit more of an architectural sense of Jamaica. We struggled to find that where we were because it has a more Hispanic and Spanish-speaking influence,” Belo says. “In terms of what else we had to offer, it was really exciting and there was a lot of goodwill all round.”

Belo also praises the ensemble cast – led by Lawrance, Atwell, Lowden and Sir Lenny Henry, who plays Godfrey – noting that they all took a deep interest in the subject matter and embedded themselves in this world and what it would have been like for the characters they play.

“One of the best scenes was when I had most of the house slaves around a table and the white plantation owners eating this Christmas dinner and suddenly realising the point of view is not at the table where it would normally be from, it’s from the edges,” Belo says. “Everybody around this table can hear exactly what’s going on, and this would have happened. There were people with opinions and points of view who have been completely erased from history and I get to recreate it. That was really exciting. It felt good.”

Belo hopes the drama, launching on BBC1 on December 18, leaves people thinking about history’s impact on today’s culture and looking at the world slightly differently. “By looking at the past, we can make quite a lot of sense of the present and of racism, and racism we don’t even recognise,” she adds. “Maybe people might be a little more wised-up to that. That would be great. I feel quite deeply about it all.”

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