This week, a bit of an experiment. Some time back, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2019 Amazon adaptation of the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel, Good Omens. It’s a book I’ve enjoyed and have read many times. Given that, I decided to try something new and read along wit the 2014 BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of the novel.
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch was first published in 1990 and was a comedy about Revelations and Armageddon. The cast includes angels, demons, the Antichrist, humans, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, though the focus is on several groups. The first group is the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, both of whom have been on Earth since its creation on October 21st, 4004BC. The next key group are the descendants of Agnes Nutter, the latest being Anathema Device. The third group is the Them, one of Tadfield’s two pre-teen gangs, consisting of Adam, the Antichrist, and his friends, Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale. Then there’s the Witchfinder Army, consisting of Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell and new recruit, Witchfinder Private Newt Pulsifer, with Madame Tracy, Shadwell’s neighbour. Finally, there’s the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death, War, Famine, and Pollution, with the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse, Big Ted, Greaser, Pigbog, and Scuzz. On the sidelines, a host of angels and demons who wait for the Final Battle.
The story covers the final days of the Earth as the forces of Heaven and Hell amass and Aziraphale and Crowley try to find the Antichrist, who they lost. The core idea is, what if the Antichrist was raised to be human incarnate? What if the Antichrist grew up without divine or infernal influence? The novel also takes a humourous look at serious topics, like the environment, nuclear power, the nature of power, and raising children. The means of highlighting these issues is to parody several sources, including The Exorcist, New Age beliefs, the Books of Genesis and Revelations, beliefs of the Seventeenth Century, among others.
In 2014, with the popularity of the novel and the authors, BBC Radio 4 produced the radio dramatisation of Good Omens. It aired from December 22-27, six episodes total, featuring a full cast. The series starred Mark Heap as Aziraphale, Peter Serafinowicz as Crowley, Jim Norton as Death, Adam Thomas Wright as Adam, Josie Lawrence as Agnes Nutter, Charlotte Richie as Anathema Device, Colin Morgan as Newton PulsiferClive Russell as Sgt. Shadwell, and Julia Deakin as Madame Tracy.
The experiment with the dramatisation was to try to follow along with the novel. The idea was to see what was dropped, what was re-written for the new medium, and what was changed. What wasn’t expected was the changing of when scenes occurred in the narrative. What works in text doesn’t always work in radio. Case in point, the use of footnotes, extensively used in Good Omens, giving extra details about a situation. It’s easy enough to add a footnote at the bottom of a page. For radio or television, the information needs to come out in a different way, such as dialogue.
As an adaptation, the dramatisation uses most of the novel. Unlike the Amazon mini-series, the dramatisation gets into what the Apocalyptic Horsepersons were doing before being summoned. War is a war correspondent known for being at the spark of a new conflict. Famine runs a chain of fast food restaurants with no nutritional value, which isn’t unusual, and is launching a new food substitute called FOOD™ that has zero calories. Pollution spends his time at formerly pristine nature sites. Death has never left, and appears at a diner playing a trivia game until he gets stumped on when Elvis Presley died. “I NEVER LAID A FINGER ON HIM.”
The Four Bikers of the Apocalypse remain in the dramatisation. Cut from the Amazon series due to time limits and cast size, the Four who aren’t in Revelations do show up, as adding extra voices and then killing them off in a rain of fish on the the M25 Sound effects on radio are less expensive than full visual special effects on screen. Likewise, Elvis is in the dramatisation, working as a short order cook, thus why Death couldn’t answer when he died. Gone are anything that is purely visual; while anything that can be done using dialogue or sound effects could be kept. That means the trees in Brazil undergoing a rapid growth and Hastur devouring an outbound telemarketing centre were dropped.
The dramatisation did start jumping around in the book in episodes three and four. It doesn’t hurt the story, though. The scenes aren’t critical; changing the order they appear doesn’t affect the overall plot. Moving the introduction of the Apocalyptic Horsepersons to just before they ride together means they’re fresh in audience’s minds. Other scenes are more informational, providing details without advancing the plot. Once everything is set in motion, the scenes follow what is written in the book, though some scenes are in parallel with others. The dramatisation then returns to the order in the novel for the climax as all the different groups come together in the US Air Force base outside Tadfield.
The experiment didn’t play out as expected, but a dramatisation isn’t an audio book. A repeat of the experiment will have to be tried with a proper audio book to see if one can work to prepare for a review. Radio dramas have their own requirements that may not map ideally to an audio book, but they both depend on the audio component.
As an adaptation, the dramatisation works. Some scenes are lost, but more of the novel is kept in the radio drama than in the Amazon series. Both do manage to capture the core of Good Omens, balancing the nature of the end of the world with the right amount of humour. It’s not an audio book, but the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation is worth a listen.
Five years ago, Lost in Translation reviewed the animated adaptation of Watership Down. The film’s limitation was length, unable to get everything in from the original novel by Richard Adams. The art was gorgeous and the film covered most of the beats.
Watership Down, of course, is the story about a group of rabbits who search for a new home after their original warren is destroyed by men. The journey is hazardous, with weather, predators, man, and other rabbits providing dangers along the way. Hazel, the rabbit who gets the survivors together, does get to found Watership Down, the new warren.
In 2018, Netflix and the BBC co-produced a mini-series based on the novel, using CG animation. The cast includes Ncholas Hoult as Fiver, James McAvoy as Hazel, John Boyega as Bigwig, Freddie Fox as Captain Holly, Olivia Colman as Strawberry, Gemma Arterton as Clover, Rosamund Pike as the Black Rabbit, Peter Kapaldi as Kehaar the seagull, and Ben Kingsley as General Woundwort. The four-part mini-series is CG animated, with the rabbits given details to tell them apart beyond just voice. As with the the 1978 animated adaptation and even the original novel, the mini-series is not for young children; Netflix shows the rating as TV-PG.
The four parts of the mini-series break down logically. “The Journey” covers Fiver’s visions of the old warren’s destruction, the escape by a handful of rabbits, their encounter with a warren that has forgotten the old ways, and the founding of Watership Down well away from man. “The Raid” picks up with the problem the new warren has, a lack of does, and the work done to rectify that; Hiver going off to rescue hutch rabbits from a farm and another group going to a large warren to see if any it can spare any does and even bucks, with both enterprises failing. “The Escape” picks up with Clover, Fiver, and Bigwig finding a wounded Hazel, and Bigwig going to the large warren to rescue the Watership Down rabbits from General Woundwort. “The Siege” ends the series with General Woundwort’s assault on Watership Down and the valiant defense by Hazel and his rabbits.
The first thing the audience sees is a CG field so real, it triggers hay fever attacks. The animation is lush, the rabbits detailed with expressive faces while still being rabbits. Members of the Owsla, like Captain Holly and Bigwig, and characters injured in the run of the story all have scars appear. General Woundwort shows a lifetime of battles on his body. Like the animation in the 1978 film, the mini-series’ is lush and adds to the tone of scenes.
Casting is also well done. Ben Kingsley when he phones in a performance is worth watching; he is not phoning in his performance as General Woundwort. He provides a menace to the character without having to yell. The rest of the characters are also well cast, with Boyega bringing out Bigwig’s hotheadedness, McAvoy shows Hazel’s growing weariness with life as chief rabbit, and Hoult brings out Fiver’s nervousness and hesitation. Capaldi’s Kehaar sounds like the brash seagull the character is.
With a combined runtime of 203 minutes, the mini-series has more time to delve into the rabbit culture, from their beliefs to their day-to-day lives. The result is a more intense story, with the fate of Watership Down and its inhabitants unknown to audiences who haven’t read the book. The mini-series does cover the novel, keeping the perspective to what the rabbits know of the world, just like the original. The worldview presented is from the rabbits.
In the end, the series adapts the original well. The quest of the surviving rabbits from Stableford to find a new home remains intact, the highs and the lows. Richard Adams’ tale makes the transition from print to television intact, with the characters unchanged. The cast, crew, and writing staff of the mini-series put in an effort to keep true to the original novel, and the results show it.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer is a major work in the Cyberpunk movement. While he didn’t create the genre, he coined the phrase cyberspace, the collective hallucination representing data abstracted from memory of every computer in the human system, accessed by millions. Neuromancer is the first of Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, and is followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. The novel has one of the best first sentences in literature, let alone just science fiction; “The sky above the port was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.” The one line alone sets up the tone for the entire story.
The main characters of the novel are Case, console cowboy and artist of the crooked deal; Molly, the archetypal street samurai; Armitage, ex-special forces and leader of the team; and Peter Riviera, creator of holograms. As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that each of these characters are inherently broken. Molly has issues in her past and is looking to avenge the death of Johnny. Armitage is a personality construct built on top of the remains of Colonel Corto, the commanding officer of Operation Screaming Fist, where the special forces team was shot down by the Russians leaving Corto as the sole survivor. Rivera gets off to betrayal and is a drug addict, using hypos instead of the more common dermal patches. As for Case, he stole from the wrong people and, when caught, had the talent burned out of him. He turns to being a minor league fixer in Night City, along Ninsei in Chiba City and he still has the problem of not knowing who to not steal from.
Case gets recruited by Armitage and Molly; they need a hacker and they were given his name by their employer. The carrot for Case is being able to punch deck once again, return to cyberspace. The stick, installed while repairing his nerves and replacing his pancreas, is a number of toxin sacs that will dissolve unless he’s given the counter agent, after the job is done. The details of the job, though, are on a need to know basis, with Armitage deciding on who needs to know.
The first part of the job involves the retrieval of the memory construct of McCoy Pauley, aka The Dixie Flatline. The hacker earned the handle after surviving brain death after brushing up against an AI. He’d go one to suffer brain death two more times before finally dying of a heart attack when his artificial heart finally failed. Before that, Sense/Net offered a sum of money to Dix that he couldn’t turn down to make a full recording of his brain and memory. To retrieve the construct, Case runs on the cyberspace matrix, dealing with Sense/Net’s digital defenses. Molly, with the help of the anarchist Panther Moderns, handles the physical security and grabs the construct. The run doesn’t go smooth; Molly winds up with a broken leg. Case, though, is back in his element.
The job leads to London, to Istanbul, and to Freelight Station. Along the way, Case starts digging into the job, trying to find out who is paying and what the end goal is. Wintermute is more then happy to fill in the details, though the AI isn’t telling Case everything, just enough to keep stringing Case along. In the L5 Lagrange point, more help is recruited, this time from the Zion cluster, founded by Rastafarians who never returned to Earth after constructing Freelight Station. Freelight is the home to Tessier-Ashpool SA, a conglomorate that formed when two families, the Tessiers and the Ashpools, merged their family businesses. T-A, the corporation, has holdings in Berne and Rio, where they have AIs.
The run into Villa Straylight, home of the Tessier-Ashpool family, goes wrong. While Case and the Dixie Flatline are guiding a military-grade virus into the T-A system, home of the AI, Molly is in the villa and runs into the Ashpool founder, who managed to live a couple hundred years thanks to anagathics and cryogenics, being thawed out everyone once in a while to help the corp. He slows Molly down, though she winds up speeding up his death. After that, she finds Peter and Lady 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, the current scion of the family. Peter has betrayed the team to 3Jane and her thawed ninja, turning the tables on Molly. This leaves Case to come in to finish the job.
Case, though, is dealing with his own issues on the righteous tug Marcus Garvey. The Armitage construct finally crumbles, leaving Corto on the bridge of a yacht docked to the Garvey reliving his escape from Russia to Finland during Screaming Fist. Corto ejects the bridge from the yacht, leaving him forever in orbit around Freelight. Wintermute gets in touch with Case, lays out the problem, and insists on having Case along with Garvey and her captain Maelcum to be the backup plan. After some convincing, Maelcum brings out an ancient shotgun, the sole weapon for the sole vessel and sole member of the Rastafarian Navy, ready to storm Freelight and Villa Straylight.
On board Freelight, Case checks in on Dix and the virus. The virus has merged with the AI’s boundaries, meshing with it and slipping inside. Then Case tries to flip back, only to find himself on an island. Who he expected to be Wintermute turns out to be a different AI, or, rather, another side to the T-A AI. Wintermute’s goal was to merge the two sides of the AI, bringing together the id and the ego of the two. The other half does not want the merger to happen, being unsure of what the result would be. Case breaks out of the AI’s trap.
Case does manage to get the information, help Molly, and force 3Jane to provide the AI’s true name, allowing the two parts to merge. Payment is made to the survivors Case and Molly; Peter was hunted down my 3Jane’s ninja but was already poisoned via his drugs by Molly. The Dixie Flatline even gets his wish; his construct is wiped. The toxin sacs in Case are neutralized thanks to the rage he experienced during the run; a flushing and replacement of his blood removes the threat completely. On returning Earthside, Case and Molly are together for a few days before she leaves, not wanting to have a repeat of what happened with Johnny. Case returns home, only to find that it’s not really home anymore. He stops at his old watering holes, but then disappears.
Neuromancer was groundbreaking in 1984. Gibson wove noir/crime with science fiction, with neither feeling like it was tacked on. The heist relies on the cyber, and the cyber on the heist. There are details that may not work as well today, such as the opening line, but other little details are still in the future for us. The cryogenics the Tessier-Ashpools use are still in development today. The Mercedes in Instanbul is a self-driving car that’s long out of the early development we’re seeing by Tesla and Google. Cybernetic limb replacements, as seen used by Ratz in Night City, aren’t available today, but 3-D printing of prosthetic limbs may be paving a road in that direction. Neuromancer doesn’t read like a story from the Eighties, despite being influenced by the the era.
In 2002, the BBC produced a two-part radio drama based on the book. The drama starred Owen McCarthy as Case, Nicola Walker as Molly, James Laurenson as Armitage, John Shrapnel as Wintermute, Colin Stinton as the Dixie Flatline, David Holt as Peter, and David Webber as Maelcum. The drama ran under two hours total and that’s the adaptation’s main problem. To get as much of the plot in, parts of the book had to be cut out. Gone are the parts set in Chiba. While on first glace, the opening part in Night City might be seen as not needed, not having the part takes away from the emotional impact when Case is on the island created by the other AI. Dixie’s laugh is also not quite right; while Stinton does provide an annoying laugh, it’s not electronic. Also gone is most of the run on Sense/Net, though it is there, and the trip to Istanbul to pickup Riviera. Other parts are glossed over.
Also gone is the drug use. Granted, there may be restrictions about the portrayal of drug use, but it is a key element in the story. Case’s use of drugs started when he tried to find a replacement for the thrill of punching deck in cyberspace. Riviera goes even further, using hard drugs that were available in the Eighties. Molly is on painkillers after breaking her leg inside Sense/Net’s HQ. It’s a sign of the characters being outside the law and society and how broken Case is. Even when Armitage upgrades Case’s system to make most recreational drugs useless, the hacker manages to score something that can bypass the lockout.
That said, other than the loss of the Chiba parts, the radio drama proceeds much like the novel, with the focus on the heist. Case becomes the narrator for the story, allowing Gibson’s prose to come through. Details get lost, but the key beats of the story are kept. A listener unaware of the original novel would not notice what is missing. To that degree, the adaptation is good, with a cast that can handle the roles well.
The drama’s main problem falls to two areas, a small cast and a short run time. The novel has a number of characters that do reappear during the run on Straylight, especially when Case flatlines. Their appearances are important to the story. The run time leads to the dropped parts mentioned above. If a radio drama has to cut key parts, it doesn’t bode well for any possible film adaptations[https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/deadpool-director-tim-miller-adapt-neuromancer-fox-1028185]. Gibson packs a lot into Neuromancer‘s 287 pages.
BBC’s adaptation of Neuromancer should have been longer, but what it does keep stays faithful to the novel. Is it perfect? No, but it is a good effort hampered by limitations imposed on it.
Lost in Translation has pointed out that television is the better medium for adapting longer form stories, such as novels. Of late, movies are better with mind blowing, budget breaking action scenes, but are limited when allowing a story to develop. Television doesn’t have the budget, but a good accountant can find ways to spread the costs over the run of a season. The catch with TV, though, is ratings. A series that can’t find an audience fast enough is often cancelled. The days where series like M*A*S*H and Cheers would be allowed time to grow an audience. Today’s television is not only competing among the networks and cable stations but also streaming services.
The key to adapting a novel is knowing just how much time can be filled. The Expanse took seventeen episodes to adapt the first book of the series, Levianthan Wakes, all of season one and the first seven episodes of season two. If the series wasn’t picked up after the first season, The Expanse would have ended at a natural break point, leaving the main plot still unfinished but giving the characters an end of sorts for their arcs.
Season lengths tend to be set for American network productions; thirteen or twenty-two episodes, giving allowing for reruns and holiday breaks. British television, though, is not beholden to the format. Seasons run as long as needed, no more, no less. This gives a bit more freedom when it comes to adaptations. There’s no need for filler episodes as seen in long running anime or even original TV series on American television. Being able to set the length of a series adapting a novel means the showrunner can figure out what can be kept and what can be dropped without losing the core of the original work.
The 2019 adaptation of Good Omens is perhaps the best use of a limited series to adapt a novel. Based on the novel Good Omens: A Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the series co-produced by the BBC and by Amazon took on the task of adapting the book nicely. The main catch to the novel was the narrative. The narrator provided a lot of extra information and footnotes that would be difficult to replicate. Tone is also crucial; the original novel is a comedy about the End of the World.
Published in 1990, the novel takes the idea of the Antichrist as seen in such movies as The Omen and asks the key question, “What if the Antichrist didn’t have angelic or demonic influences?” The novel also looks at the question of nature versus nurture, ineffability, and the nature of humanity. All while an angel and a demon rebel against their own sides to save the world.
How does the Antichrist get misplaced, though? One would expect that the angelic hosts and demonic hordes would keep a close eye on the bringer of Armageddon. However, while God does not play dice with the universe, God is also not beyond a little Three-Card Monte, by adding a third baby to the mix. Not only is the wife of the American ambassador giving birth at St. Beryl’s Order of Chattering Nuns, but Mrs. Young is as well. The demon Crowley passes the Antichrist off to one of the Satanic nuns who gets confused on who is the American ambassador and switches out the wrong baby. While Heaven, represented by the Principality Aziraphale, and Hell, with Crowley coming in, try to influence young Warlock, the Antichrist, named Adam, is growing up in Tadfield, England.
Add into the confusion Anathema Device, a professional descendant of Agnes Nutter, and the owner of the only copy ever published of Agnes’ book, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch; the Witchfinder Army, consisting of Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell and new recruit Newt Pulsifer, descendant of the man who burned Agnes at the stake; the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse with new recruit Pollution replacing the retired Pestilence; Adam’s gang, Them, with Pepper, Wensleydale, and Brian; and a Bentley where every cassette morphs into The Best of Queen over a fortnight. Gaiman and Pratchett keep the story moving along and a good pace as Adam starts realizing that he is more than what he appears as his eleventh birthday approaches. Ultimately, Adam shows that he is neither good nor evil, just human.
Being adapted can be seen as winning the lottery by some writers. It takes writers with experience and pull to be able to control how their stories are adapted. Neil Gaiman is one such author, with experience working in television and enough best sellers to make studios notice. Gaiman became the showrunner for the 2019 adaptation of Good Omens. His familiarity with the story and his respect for his co-writer Pratchett comes through with the results. Gaiman also wrote the script and, working with the BBC and with Amazon’s streaming service, was able to get the novel out without being rushed, without losing key ideas, and without having to cut corners.
The series starred Michael Sheen as Aziraphale and David Tennant as Crowley, with Adria Arjona as Anathema, Jack Whitehall as Newt, Miranda Richardson as Madame Tracey, Michael McKean as Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, Sam Taylor Buck as Adam, and Ollie as the cutest Hellhound ever, Dog. The six episodes follow the events in the novel closely, losing only a few bits and characters due to limitations. To new viewers, though, these losses don’t leave a visible hole, so the second set of Four Bikers of the Apocalypse aren’t muddling the flow of the plot onscreen. Likewise, the reason Queen is used as the soundtrack is never explained, but it’s a soundtrack featuring Queen. The fate of the third baby isn’t revealed, leaving the question dangling of what just happened after the swapping at St. Beryl’s. At the same time, the series expands on how the Arrangement between Aziraphale and Crowley came about, where they cover for each other when one gets stuck elsewhere.
The narrator is handled by having Frances McDormand be the voice of God, narrating as needed, giving the extra explanations the narrative in the original novel does. The Metatron, the Voice of God, though, is played by Derek Jacobi. By having God narrate, the little asides that come up in the book can carry over to the series, giving the audience the information needed to understand where the story is going and why.
Casting was critical. The chemistry between Aziraphale and Crowley had to work. Fortunately, Sheen and Tennant were more than capable in recreating the forbidden camaraderie of two people who have known each other over 6000 years. Sam Taylor Buck plays Adam as a normal kid who isn’t all that normal, one who just wants to enjoy his time at home, neither good nor evil. The cast, in short, was perfect, even with the minor characters like Jon Hamm’s Gabriel, portrayed as an out of touch middle manager who doesn’t have to deal with the front line.
Having Gaiman as showrunner ensured that the adaptation stayed true. The parts and characters that were removed weren’t needed in the overall plot and would have taken up time needed elsewhere. Good Omens remained faithful to the original novel, keeping the tone and the themes that helped make the story popular.