Carl Miller on adapting Erich Kästner’s 1929 novel Emil and the Detectives for the National Theatre
As we read stories, we adapt them. The words on the page evoke events, characters and settings, leading our unconscious to create a version different from every other reader’s. Your picture of the bank where Alice sees the white rabbit is not mine; we hear different voices when Mole talks to Ratty; everyone’s Secret Garden would look singular were we able to show each other the picture in our head. There will always be something strange when a story we have experienced deeply on the page is presented to us on stage or screen. It will always be a rival to that first ideal adaptation of our imagination.
Asked about my experience of adapting Emil and the Detectives, I found myself remembering another story. In it, I recalled, a writer had devoted his life to writing Don Quixote again. Not copying it out, but writing it again – properly, you could say – from scratch. I remembered that the challenge was for the new writer to recreate the same impulse that triggered the original. If the writer could know and feel and understand as Cervantes had done, there would be no need to copy. The re-creation would simply flow naturally, as the original had done.
I realised I had wanted something similar to happen for me: not simply to reproduce the surface of the book, but to be guided by what inspired it. I tried to discover the impulses that guided Erich Kästner’s typewriter and for those impulses to flow through me. I hoped to give theatre audiences in London in 2013 something of the experience readers of the novel would have had in Berlin in 1929. Although I had a vague sense that the Don Quixote man had taken a lifetime to manage what he did…
I immersed myself in fiction and non-fiction of Kästner’s time and place. I looked at pictures and photographs, watched films – one of the advantages of a book set in Germany in 1929 is that the Weimar Republic is a rich and well-documented period of amazing artistic richness. Just doing the research could have taken a lifetime (a potential trap for the procrastinating adapter). Yet it later proves useful in unpredictable ways: in rehearsals one of the video projection design team contacted me to find out what the tram and cab fares Emil and the others have to pay were. Like actors in rehearsal wearing clothes or handling objects suitable to the time and place to gain insights into the physical lives of their characters, I wanted to sense the practicalities of what it was like to live in Emil’s world.
Kästner’s wonderful memoir When I Was A Little Boy proved a huge influence. Rehearsing a scene with Emil and the Professor where they talk about children being beaten at school, Bijan Sheibani, the director, helped the young actors to understand that in the world of the play such brutality is commonplace, as it was in Kästner’s schooling (and is not, thankfully, for them). That altered the way the actors played the scene – each detail of a performance helps us to sense more of the world in which the play takes place
Kästner was inspired to communicate to young readers for the first time when he was asked to write Emil and the Detectives. What I had learned about writing plays to engage young audience members came from two theatre directors: Rosamunde Hutt and Tony Graham.
Rosamunde Hutt (with whom I first worked when adapting Eva Ibbotson’s glorious book Journey to the River Sea) coaxes performances of emotional and physical bravery from actors, in work which can captivate the toughest crowds of sceptical young people. From her I learned the importance of layering a piece of theatre: for instance driving the story forward with enough energy to keep the attention of those who lap up action; while also allowing space for those who lock on emotionally to characters to deepen those relationships. Her work is distinctive for its interweaving of visual, physical, musical and verbal performance elements: work which grips first-time audience members in whichever language speaks most vividly to them. At the National Theatre, Bijan Sheibani brought together the skills of a production team (Lucy Carter’s lighting, Bunny Christie’s set and costumes, Aline David’s movement, Ian Dickinson’s sound design, Paul Englishby’s music, and Leo Warner and 59 Productions’ projections) who ensured that the aural, physical and visual expressiveness of the production was brilliantly integrated with the storytelling.
From Tony Graham, who conceived and opened London’s Unicorn Theatre building in 2005, I have learned always to look for the child’s perspective in a piece which wants to communicate to young audience members. It is not enough simply to have child characters: do their decisions drive the drama? Here, Emil and the Detectives is a gift for an adapter. As enthusiasts Maurice Sendak, Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen and others have stressed, this is a pioneering story in which the child characters take control of the action. What drives the story is what matters to Emil and the other child characters: getting the stolen money back. And for Emil the story is also about having to make choices on his own, away from home and his mother.
Having a child’s perspective in a drama does not rule out adults connecting with it too. As Kästner was always keen to remind us, adults were all children once – and are better for remembering that experience. But as we grow further away from our first encounter with any story, that adaptation in our head invisibly develops. If we come back to read the same book after a gap of years, there are shocks of recognition and of unfamiliarity. What seemed crucial to our child’s perspective came from an innocence we somehow lost. Bits which then seemed dull or less relevant now speak vividly to our adult concerns. All readers are different, even the same reader, returning to the shores of a once-visited story after a long absence.
I looked out the story about rewriting Don Quixote. It is Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote by Jorge Luis Borges. And it’s not at all as I remembered it – the writing strategy I described is one the author specifically abandons as too easy. But the adaptation I had in my head had done its job and now I can go back and read the story again. The process of adaptation continues.
Carl Miller was the Artistic Director of the Young People’s programme at the Royal Court Theatre from 1997 to 1999. From 2002 to 2012 he was Literary Manager of Unicorn Theatre. His adaptation of Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives played at the National Theatre.
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, Red Fox Classics, 978-0099413127, £5.99 pbk
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, adapted by Carl Miller, Oberon Books, 978-1783190188, £9.99 pbk