I recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager, and of course went straight to the novel afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation, but I’m loving the novel more.
You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.
Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).
That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?
Books are interior
A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.
This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.
Characters and reality
Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.
For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:
He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’
The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:
Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’
Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:
He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’
How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?
I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.
The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.
Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.
Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’
A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.
Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.
Interrogation. That’s a difference I should also mention: how you contribute so much of a book’s experience from your own grey matter. The pictures, places, sounds, significance. For Franz Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’.
Your own pace
And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.
I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms so we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.
Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.
Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.
Tell me your thoughts.