The Nature of the Beast –book into film
The film version of Janni Howker’s award-winning novel was released in November. The story, told in the novel by young Bill Coward, charts the impact of unemployment on a Lancashire mill town and in particular on Bill’s family. The Beast of the title roams the moors making attacks on the town; Bill sets out to track it down.
We sent Val Randall, who loves the book and its setting, to see the film and to talk to Janni Howker.
‘I reckon the Beast’s something that’s been here all the time – something real, something they’re afraid of. ‘Bill Coward’s words express the ambiguous nature of the Beast in book and film. I wondered how successfully the film would convey this ambiguity. For part of the film the camera becomes the Beast, roaming Haverston’s streets, filling Bill’s consciousness and exposing the callousness of multi-national corporations which engulf small mills and so destroy communities who depend on them. This is largely effective but there are times when the film compromises introducing a demon ‘cat god’ on a television programme Bill watches and a brief unexplained glimpse of a jaguar in Bill’s final confrontation with the Beast on the moor.
Seeing the characters of one’s imagining realised on screen is another test. Chunder is played marvellously by Tony Melody, the warmth of his relationship with Bill is finely stated in the scene following the slaughter of his chickens by ‘the Beast’ where Bill becomes the stronger of the two, reassuring the beaten old man which Chunder has become. Other relationships fare less well. The book created the friendship between Bill and his friend Mick with that special intensity and complexity peculiar to adolescent boys. In the film it becomes almost mundane, with Mick (who doesn’t go to live with Bill) taking a secondary role.
I wondered, too, how well the film would capture the ending. Bill leaves home before the institutions which are determined to control his life manipulate him in the same way that powerful outside forces manipulated the mill and its workers. The impotence this suggested in the book was laced with an impressive determination to rule his own life. The film’s final scene has none of this and it is a less memorable Bill, one who invoked in me merely a sense of pity.
I shared these reactions with Janni Howker, who also wrote the screenplay, and asked her about the difficult task of turning novel into film.
‘Like most people, I had little idea about the complexities of film-making. The first thing you have to understand is that a film is, essentially, the creation of a director and not of a writer. For a writer, this is an odd situation. When I wrote the novel there were no constraints – nothing to come between me and my initial conception and imagination, and the reader other than a publisher’s editor.
‘With a screenplay, however, there is a procedure of submitting first, second, third and even fourth drafts, in some cases, before the acceptance of the final draft which will act as the basis on which the film is made. Each draft is discussed and there are often technical, film-making reasons for changes being made.
‘Then there is a technical language to learn which is utterly different from the way in which I would write a novel. The biggest difficulty, from my point of view, was in trying to find a way of adapting a first-person story into a visual third-person narrative. I’m not sure that was managed – I know I missed hearing Bill’s voice, his lively comments on situations, his jokes.
‘The second major difficulty was that of time. The film only lasts 95 minutes. The book is immensely complicated and my first draft would have probably run to about three hours. This time constraint leads onto the biggest constraint of all – money. “Beast” is a very low-budget film and one had to accept what was possible to be filmed within this budget. This makes for another level of change and of simplification.
‘In the end, one has to understand that a screenplay is a kind of recipe which is used by the director-but financial constraints, the director’s own artistic point of view and even the weather may mean that many of the ingredients of that recipe are changed. As a writer, I had to learn how to ‘let go’ of Beast – a great deal of this was out of my hands.’
I returned to my feeling that the Beast of the film was less ambiguous than the Beast of the book. Did Janni Howker think this affected the ‘message’ of the film ?
‘That’s all part of what I’ve just been saying. It’s here, in this sort of imaginative area, that I think words can be more subtle, complex and frightening than any visually one-dimensional effect. I would have preferred there to have been no “animal” shown. But this is a problem which related to the altered point of view. As a reader you would feel the real intensity and complex savagery of Bill’s relationship with the “Beast” and the notion of the “Beast” because it’s all woven into the story. I think that the powerful and ambiguous “nature” of the “Beast” in the book lies in the very business of the struggle Bill has in finding words to articulate all that is happening to him. This is much more simplistic in the film and that makes me uneasy. However, given the constraints upon the director, perhaps this is understandable.’
I came out of the film feeling that the way the North was portrayed had a very sixties’ feel; yet the themes of this book are very much of the present day. I wondered how that had happened. Did Janni agree?
‘Let me say the obvious thing for a start – the film was made on location and nothing was altered about the streets or houses or the working mill in which the shots were made. The two boys who play Bill and Mick were local boys from local schools and even the chip shop scene was filmed in the chip shop!
‘Now this is very odd – here are real places and people – and yet it comes as a bit of a shock. It makes me realise how invisible a great deal of the North has become in the media. What shocks me is how one can begin to accept as “the norm” the kind of accents, houses, life-styles which are portrayed on television. There is a very positive side of the film which is showing strong family and community networks and close ties to place and neighbourhood. This has always been one of the great strengths of the North, but it has also made the industrial North vulnerable because those ties are often linked to a local place of work – like the mill in the film.
‘If you carry this “invisibility” one step further, it quickly becomes apparent that when communities like this are experiencing real difficulties, those of unemployment, little notice is taken. They’re simply not seen. This is what I was trying to say in my book and what, I believe, is still being said in the film.’
So, now that the film is out, how does she feel about the whole project?
‘I feel very grateful to have had this experience of working on a film. Above all, I was deeply impressed by the commitment of the director, Franco Rosso, and the producer, Joanna Smith, in putting themselves on the line with this low-budget film during a time of rampant consumerism, fantasy and escapism in the arena of young people’s viewing.’
The Nature of the Beast by Janni Howker is published in hardback by Julia MacRae (0 86203 194 X, £6.95) and in paperback by Lions (0 00 672582 1, £1.95).
WRITING ABOUT – Cool
Behind the three-part TV series that hit our screens in December is a novel. Philip Pullman, author of How To Be Cool, tells how he came to be…
When I was a teacher, what I enjoyed most was the unofficial culture of the schools I taught in. The school uniform, for instance, might he described in the brochure, but that’s only a starting point: what really matters is how the pupils wear it. If they have to wear a tie, they’ll tie it in a huge big fat knot and leave two rude little bits sticking down underneath; or casually knotted halfway down the chest over an open collar; or rolled and stretched so it’s as thin as a piece of string-anything to put their own mark on it, and quite right too.
I used to watch all this with fascination. And I used to listen. When kids, right, are talking together, right, I don’t mean the GCSE kind of oral wossname, you know, assessment, right, but just kind of – no, shut up, listen – if they’re just talking, okay, okay? – then if you listen, right, you get all the rhythms. It’s all in the rhythms. Almost.
Take white socks and well wicked.Dated now, both of them, but I remember the first occasion I came across them. I moved from a job in one Oxford middle school to another middle school a couple of miles away across the city; and one of the first things I noticed was that the stylists, the leaders, were wearing white socks and little black low-cut shoes. And the highest term of praise in their lexicon was well wicked. Wicked was easy to place: words like mean, dirty, Michael Jackson’s Bad, have long been terms of approval in hip slang. Well as an intensifier (it’s well hot, he was well angry) was more intriguing; I haven’t been able to work out where that one comes from.
Now neither white socks nor well wicked had appeared at my previous school. But as it happened, my son was a pupil there at the time, and I asked him to keep his eyes and ears open and let me know when they turned up. It took a couple of months for them to make their first appearance, and within six months they were established.
I’d been vaguely intending to write a story about style for some time; I’d even thought of the title – How To Be Cool – and sketched a couple of outlines, but nothing had come of it. White socks crystallised the feeling of the title into a plot. Suppose there was a sinister secret organisation controlling the spread of fashions such as white socks; the National Cool Board. And suppose some bright kid became aware of this and decided to expose it. And suppose (this was the easiest of all) that the Cool Board was about to be privatised – as British Cool, naturally. It’s the sort of situation you just wind up and set going.
I still needed a protagonist, and here again classroom life came to my aid. In the class I was teaching at that time, there were three boys who were real stylists. Pink tennis shirts – exotic trainers – and there was one occasion when they all turned up with gold-rimmed folding sunglasses, and stood inside the doorway and just posed, exuding waves of cool. The girls, at whom the waves were aimed, naturally took not the slightest notice.
Well, there were my heroes. With their permission, I used their names in the book; everything else (I think) is fiction. Though when I go into one of these new mega-shopping centres and see the uniformed security guards deciding who’s allowed in and who isn’t, and when I consider the mysterious business of who really did first wear white socks, I begin to wonder.
Philip Pullman, who wrote the screenplay for the TV adaptation of How To Be Cool (Heinemann. 0 434 95781 X, £6.95: 0 434 95782 8, £3.95 pbk, and Pan Piper,0 330 299018, £2.50 pbk), is also the author of The Ruby in the Smoke (Oxford, (( 19 271543 7, £6.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.2209 4, £1.95 pbk) and its sequel The Shadow in the Plate (Oxford, 0 19 271548 8, £6.95). A third story to complete this Victorian thriller trilogy is due soon.
AN UPDATE OF TV, FILM & RADIO INFORMATION
The New Adventures of William Tell
Anthony Horowitz, Puffin, 0 14 03 2353 8, £1.99.
Latest information is that this should be on your screens from ITV starting this month (January) in eighteen 30-minutes episodes.
Roald Dahl, Cape, 0 224 02040 4, £7.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.1597 7. £2.50 pbk
A feature film coming some time this year, possibly Easter.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Joan Aiken. Puffin, (1 14 03.0310 3, £1.95 pbk
A feature film for this Spring.
Allan Ahlberg, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 80832 6, £6.95; Puffin 0 14 03.1996 4,
Four 30-minute episodes with Liza Goddard, from ITV starting mid to end February.
Tom’s Midnight Garden
Philippa Pearce, Oxford. 0 19 271 128 8, £6.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.0893 8, £2.50 pbk This has taken us completely by surprise. Produced by Paul Stone (of recent Narnia fame) it’s one of the most enduring books published in the last thirty years. We’re told it starts this January on BBC1 and runs for six 30-minute episodes.
The Falcon’s Malteser
Anthony Horowitz, Lions, 0 00 673396 4, £1.95 pbk
A feature film (Twentieth Century Fox) set for general release from this January and retitled Just Ask for Diamond, it stars Susannah York, Nikolas Grace (Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin of Sherwood), Patricia Hodge, Saeed Jaffrey, and the late Roy Kinnear. It’s a spoof detective thriller, with half a nod to the Bogart classic, The Maltese Falcon, about two brothers, their detective agency, a Dwarf, a box of Maltesers, and a three-and-a-half million pound fortune. For 8s to 12s.
Book Tower Returns
This very popular programme from Yorkshire TV (recent winner of a gold medal at the New York Film and Television Festival Awards) returns to our screens from 28th March through to 17th May in the 4.45pm slot. In all there are eight 20-minute programmes. Viewing figures are impressive from the last series (January 1988) – four and a half million viewers; 35% of that audience were children with a peak in the 10 to 12 year old age group. To accompany the series, Yorkshire Television produce an illustrated, helpful guide giving details of all the books shown in the programme. Like the last series the new one adopts a thematic approach with a variety of presenters:
Brother and Sisters Michael Rosen
Legends Chris Serle
Birds Su Ingle
Witches Carol Lee Scott
Jokes and Humour Gary Wilmo
Science and Science Fiction Carol Vorderman
Sport and Football Bruce Grobbclaar
Mystery Tony Robinson
There will also be another Book Tower serial running through each episode. This time it features two Jan Mark stories with ‘Hairs on the Palm of the Hand taking tip (our episodes and ‘Chutzpah, another four. The Book Tower Watchers’ Guide will be available in time for the start of the series – we’ll try to give that information in the March issue of BfK.
Details for the rest of the spring term.
Week beginning 23rd January, read by Penny Wilton:
Alice‘s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll. various publishers
Week beginning 30th January, read by Matthew Devitt:
Paddy on the Island, Ursula Moray Williams, Andersen, 0 86264 186 1, £5.95
Week beginning 6th February, read by Sophie Aldred and Jonathon Morris:
The Reversible Giant, Robert Leeson, Black, 0 7136 2864 2, £4.50
Princess Florizella, Philippa Gregory, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 82153 5, £4.50
The Last of the Dragons, E Nesbit, Methuen, 0 416 96700 0, £5.95; Puffin Classics, 0 14 035.069 1, £l.75 pbk
Never Kiss Frogs!, Robert Leeson, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12489 1. £2.75
Week beginning 13th February, read by Peter O’Brien:
The Monday Sheepdog, Ivy Baker, Angus & Robertson, 0 207 15503 8, £5 95p
Week beginning 211th February.. read by Victoria Wood:
Matilda, Roald Dahl, Cape, 0 224 02572 4, £8.50
Week beginning 27th February, read by Tony Robinson:
Nicobobinus, Terry Jones, Pavilion, 185145 000 9, £7.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.2091 1, £2.25 pbk
Week beginning 6th March:
My Friend Walter, Michael Morpurgo, Heinemann, 0 434 95203 6, £7.95
Week beginning 13th March, read by Bernard Cribbins:
Jeremiah in the Dark Woods, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 40637 6, £5.95; Young Lions, 0 00 671640 7, £1.75 pbk
The Reluctant Dragon, Kenneth Grahame, Methuen, 0 416 40270 7, £6.95; Deutsch, 0 233 98041 5, £4.95; Young Lions, 0 00 670544 8, £1.75 pbk
Week beginning 20th March, with the Auckland City Opera Ballet:
Week beginning 27th March:
The Whipping Boy, Sid Fleischman. Methuen, 0 416 12512 3, £5.95; Magnet, 0 416 08812 0, £ 1.99 pbk, due May 1989