PLEASE NOTE: This article contains spoilers because it is based not just on the BBC adaptation, but on the story as a whole.
I began watching the BBC’s adaptation of Birdsong as not the world’s greatest fan of this novel, or its author, but with fairly high hopes, based on the trailers that have been running since Christmas, that here might be a visual feast of an adaptation which surpassed the original and which might help students who are studying this text.
Within ten minutes, I was already disappointed. Certainly the sets were sumptuous and reasonably accurate, but the constant flitting between 1910 and 1916 was too distracting for words. By all means, the story can be told in a series of flashbacks – that is, essentially, how the book is written – but couldn’t we at least remain in one time zone for long enough to acclimatise to it? It is really important to the creation and understanding of Stephen’s character, that we see his relationship with Isabelle as a whole. Only by building the intensity between them and then seeing the destruction caused to him, do we comprehend his aloof nature in the trenches. Given the style of telling the story in this adaptation, we fail to see this, because we don’t yet know that Isabelle will leave Stephen and that this will change his outlook and personality significantly. Stephen isn’t someone who is changed by war: he is changed by his perception of love. Without properly developing Stephen and Isabelle’s relationship before showing us his character in the trenches, his different personality doesn’t really make sense.
One of my biggest disappointments with the adaptation was the things that were left unsaid or undone. Where were all the intimate conversations between Stephen and Isabelle? Where was Stephen’s uncontrollable lust, so great that he even contemplated rape? This helps us to understand his lack of true understanding of “love”, as opposed to “desire” at this stage of his life. Why was not more made of the underground scenes, especially the fight in which Wraysford was injured, which is so graphically described in the novel?
The introduction of Jeanne so early on and her warning to Stephen were, frankly, infuriating. Her character in the novel would never have done this: her loyalty to Isabelle is absolute and at this stage Jeanne is no more than her sister’s confidante. This effectively “dumbs down” the piece, showing the viewer – very obviously – that Isabelle cannot necessarily be trusted and that Stephen is risking his heart by becoming involved with her. In the novel, the reader is well aware of this, purely by Isabelle’s reactions, without needing another character to actually explain it.
I am also left wondering why the modern section of the novel was completely omitted. Elizabeth’s story helps to complete the circle, telling the story itself and providing some contrasts with situations and characters.
With another episode to go (and an awful lot of story still to cram in) my one ray of hope throughout the programme was the performance of Joseph Mawle as Jack Firebrace, who I felt most closely captured the character from the novel. Whenever he was on the screen, all others paled into insignificance.
At 10.30, however, I was left with a sense of concern that there will be some students who will now decide that it is acceptable to simply watch three hours of television, rather than read a 500 page novel. Well, it isn’t. This adaptation fails to capture the extraordinary and intense atmosphere of passion, war and love that Faulks conveys in his novel. So, I have to say that 10.30 on Sunday 22nd January also saw me with a new-found respect for Sebastian Faulks, who achieved all of this through words alone. If you don’t believe me; read the book.