Robert Leeson finds a new perspective on adaptation as his own version of The Third Class Genie goes into the theatre.
This spring, out of the blue came a letter from the Phoenix Arts, a well-known community theatre in Leicester with a reputation for young people’s shows (Adrian Mole, Narnia, etc.). Could they make a play out of my book The Third Class Genie? Would I write it? Would I adapt my own book for the stage?
I said yes, almost immediately. I had a respectable motive. After all the book owed its long life and many editions to being accepted by pupils and teachers. Having it performed by a youth theatre which has entertained school parties by the hundred was only right.
Underlying the agreement was, however, something less positive. No one else was going to lay hands on my book. I knew all the sins, even atrocities of the adaptor. If I did it myself, then the pure essence of every chapter and situation would be preserved.
Having said yes, I asked: When for? Christmas, they said. Rehearsals start late October. We need the first draft in mid-August. And that was only three months away. I gritted my teeth.
Three months was an exaggeration. There were frustrations, disputes and at one stage the production was off. The reason – you guessed – was money. These days every community theatre has a perilous hold on existence. But after a battle, the production was on again, though the three months had shrunk to seven weeks.
I went at it like a fire engine, and seven weeks later I was engaged in friendly, but tough argument with Les Miller, the director, over my first version, and the far from painless process of re-writing began again.
Often, in the process of re-writing, cutting, scene switching, it seemed that the story was being turned inside out. More than once, the thought occurred to me: someone is going to say, ‘This isn’t the book I know’. And the one they would have to blame, the villain of the piece, would be me.
Was the gamekeeper turning poacher? Was I now saying to all the adaptors – come back all is forgiven? Well no. But I began to see more clearly that faithful adaptation means more than reproduction of the familiar outlines of the original. It means re-creating the original so that its spirit lives again in a new form.
As I worked, I thought a good deal about our suspicion of book adaptors. I think it partly stems from our almost religious awe of the Book as the fundamental form of the story, and other ‘media’ (or ‘the media’) as being less mature, more peripheral expressions of the real thing.
I remembered, ruefully, the teacher at a conference who attacked a Schools TV drama production of Macbeth, saying that pupils ought to be getting the original thing – i.e. the book!
The speaker forgot, as I was forgetting, that theatre, along with song, dance and the told story, is most ancient and fundamental. I recalled that when I wrote The Third Class Genie, or indeed when I write any book, the story grew in my head like a visual drama, I saw the characters move, walk and talk in an imagined landscape.
Then using the code of written words I set that mind-play down in prose, weaving description around the persons, their actions and words, so that the distant, unknown reader could (using the code) create again in their own head, their own version of what happened. That’s the magic of reading.
My first play-version faithfully set down the book-story. But my second version, I think, came closer to the play-in-my-mind, or rather something which would enable flesh and blood actors in a real theatre, to make flesh and blood people see the imagination come alive – not in their own minds but there, before their eyes.
Let me give a couple of examples of how it worked out. In the book Abu the Genie, who is found by Alec the hero curled up inside a seemingly empty beer can lying in the gutter, remains invisible until near the end of the book. A good deal of the tension depends upon his invisibility. When he appears and shows himself to be Black (an illegal immigrant) Alec and the world are taken by surprise.
Likewise the villain Alderman Joe Blaggett remains an unseen figure of comic menace, spoken about, his doings and speeches reported, until near the end of the book, when he appears to fall ignominiously into the canal in pursuit of the now-materialised genie.
Now in a play on stage you can get some stretch out of an off-stage person, friendly or hostile. But not out of two major characters who don’t appear until the next-to-the-last scene.
So Abu had to be visible. And in the play he is generously and magnificently visible. One of the pleasures for me as author was to watch him and Alec play out their relationship in the flesh on stage – my mind picture come to life.
But, I decided, for the first part of the play Abu should be visible just to Alec. This produced some bonuses. In the scene (in the book) where history teacher Tweedy Harris mocks Alec’s project on the Crusades (dictated by Abu who fought in the Crusader battles) we have Alec’s quiet humiliation. Later in his bedroom, he tells Abu, who offers to behead the offending Harris.
On stage these two book-scenes are merged, with Abu appearing in class (visible only to Alec) and setting out to decapitate Harris, restrained only by desperate commands from Alec – to the delight of the class and the baffled fury of Harris, who feels only that he has been insulted and does not know that his life has been saved.
Joe Blaggett, in the play, is the first person to appear on stage. His plan to clear people from the centre of Bugletown and create ‘Blaggettville’, a high rise haven for yuppies, looms over the action throughout, creating a 1980s-type menace both to the community and the private life of Alec.
Up-front, along with Joe Blaggett, the developer-politician, the character of Arthur, his son, well-meaning but daffy, grew and grew, from a minor to a major role. Arthur’s innocent comments on stage enabled me to ridicule the monstrous pretensions of his father.
Even more ‘visible’ are the school yard scenes, where pupils from Leicester schools impart a vividness to play, quarrels, friendships, race tension which I would only wish my book-words could convey half so effectively.
Other changes were forced on the play. Money shortage meant only nine professional actors. Doubling up of parts meant re-writing to make sure actors didn’t suddenly ‘meet’ themselves on stage, or find they had only five seconds to change costume.
Money, or money-shortage, meant an end to dreams of constantly changing elaborate sets. But Paul Wenham’s design in fact achieves a tremendous permanent set which embodies all Bugletown, from the Tank, with its ruined factory, crane and gantry, to the school yard, and even Grandad’s caravan and the Bowdens’ kitchen trucking smartly on and off stage.
Another bonus in going ‘on stage’ is musical director Paul Mason’s songs, which every now and then highlight the points the story tries to make from Grandad’s ditty about changing the world to Abu’s reproach to Alec’s greed and the playground chorus which pitches the girls and boys comically against each other.
There is something unique about the pleasure of watching live actors re-create your characters, and to discuss with them what the characters mean, as though discussing a third party, a real person. To answer their questions I had to bring out of my mind far more of the life-stories of these imaginary people than I ever put in the book.
I hope that people who have read the book will discover much more in the play, more of the life of that imaginary town Bugletown and its inhabitants, young and old, than I was able to write down first time round. Maybe that is what adaptation should be about – a fortunate return visit to a place and people you knew and cared for.
The Third Class Genie is published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton (0 241 10623 0, £6.95) and in paperback by Fontana Lions (0 00 671633 4, £1.50),