To adapt a mockingbird

Apparently, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee was published 50 years ago this year; the BBC showed a documentary this week connected with it, which I saw part of. The presenter mentioned that he’d never watched the classic film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as he was too fond of the book. Conversely I’ve never read the book (nor have I seen the film) but I saw a spell-binding stage version starring under-rated Bradford-born actor Duncan Preston as Atticus, and I wouldn’t want to read the book now in case it tainted my memories of the play.

As with many things, I’m quite inconsistent when it comes to sampling different versions of literary works. I mentioned recently seeking out novels of TV and radio detectives I’ve enjoyed, and if I’m not doing much else I’ll usually have a listen to a radio version of the Maigret or Poirot stories I read as an adolescent. Whereas with the novels of the TV or radio detectives I’m looking for something new to widen my knowledge of them, when I listen to Maigret, Poirot or Sherlock Holmes I’m looking for something familiar and comfortable, something I can happily miss a few minutes of to go make a cup of tea.

I used to make a point of not watching adaptations of Stephen King stories I’d already read (to this day I think the only exception is The Green Mile which wasn’t one of my favourite Stephen King books anyway; I watched the film about 10 years after I’d read the novel) because those stories were so important to me I didn’t want anything spoiling them. The other way round was somehow fine: I saw Stand By Me and Maximum Overdrive before I read their written roots, and I realised that at least with the short stories the divergence between the visual and the written was great enough to allow me to separate them in my mind.

A few years ago (actually 11, I just checked) there was a high-profile film adaptation of at least part of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. Given that this is one of my absolute favourite books of all time (I say it’s a book, singular, but the edition I’ve got is 3 thick books and my dad’s edition is 12 slimmer volumes) I was curious as to how it was handled, but I knew I could never watch it as the novel itself means too much to me and no-one else’s vision could ever do it justice. Which is where more inconsistency comes in: Lord of the Rings, another of my all-time favourites (sometimes for the sake of my back I wish I carried thinner books around with me), and yet I was eager to see Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, and came away from the first film with the unsettling feeling that he’d somehow seen inside my head. I didn’t feel the same about the remaining two films but I still enjoyed them because of the way the first one made me feel, and I’m looking forward to The Hobbit.

I’m not sure what the conclusion is from all this, if indeed there is one. Maybe it’s just that I’m a contrary soul, or that I’m missing out on interpretations that would make me enjoy my favourite books all the more (the BBC presenter finally watched the Gregory Peck film and thought Peck’s delivery brought to life part of the courtroom scene that he’d always found rather flat in the book). Maybe I should stick to only one format or the other, to maximise my time for discovering new wonders.


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