You’ve spent hours with him without knowing it. You’ve shared ideas of the same Dashwood and Bennet sisters and you owe him for the vision of Colin Firth’s Darcy drenched in white.
Andrew Davies, writer of screenplays and novels, has produced some of the most beloved and iconic BBC adaptations of our age: Pride & Prejudice [the one with Colin Firth], Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit, and the original House of Cards show [with Francis Urckhart] on which the new Netflix hit is based.
The lighthearted Welsh author gave us a behind-the-scenes glimpse at his relationship with Austen and Dickens and tales of how these classics are brought to life on the silver screen at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature session on Saturday, March 4, titled ‘From Austen to Tolstoy: Screen Classics with Andrew Davies.’
He encapsulated the central challenge of adaptations in the first five minutes of his session:
When we love a book, we make out own adaptation as we’re reading it… Everybody does that.
His hurdle lies in convincing us that the characters are real and, just for a short while, persuade us that no other version exists. While a difficult line of work open to a lot of criticism, Davies’ BBC adaptation shave been able to portray the essence of classics on the screen, staying faithful to complexity and character values.
He makes light of the matter saying adaptations are easy, saying he leaves many portions of the original unchanged, saying “Get a book, and copy out the best bits.”
His work day begins at 9am, when he gets to his desk to play a few games, check his email and then “gingerly” sit with a script. Not a big believer in leaving the final version for redrafting, he works precisely on the first versions and says he’s lucky if he gets two hours of work done.
“I’m satisfied if I get four pages a day.”
Four final pages, they have to be. Of the whole process, he finds the start a struggle [like many writers], but finds the wind in his sails as he moves along.
In a relaxed printed blue button-down, he leaned back during a one-on-one with B-Change to talk about Austen’s female leads.
Reminded of Ehle’s sensible performance as Elizabeth Bennet – as Davies says intelligent, humorous and ironic – he says that he can’t help but be affected by the feminist climate now, working with strong female producers, script editors and co-writers who want to see themselves reflected in the characters.
He comments playfully against the tide: “Sometimes I say ‘Can’t I just write a soppy girl? Because they’re nice as well.’”
His adaptations have a running theme of being lighthearted romantic stories. We asked him..
Why romantic stories?
“It’s just my taste. I tend not to like war stories etc. I like stories about the human heart.”
Well aware of the effect his screen adaptations have on reading, he says he’s proud of the fact that his work reaches out to the masses and gets people interested, since the language is often unfamiliar and the kids have to do it for exams, so seeing the adaptation, he says, can be an easy way to get started.
“I hope children aren’t answering exam papers base don the books though,” he laughs.
A bibliophile himself, he admits that he reads the same books over and over until he sees through the eyes of each character, internalizing their struggles. Of cynics who say that his adaptations perverse or water the original down, he objects with a light, matter-of-fact statement:
They’re a different animal, really. I always say to people who say ‘you’ve ruined the book for me,’ that no, I haven’t spoiled it for you, because there the book still is, and I’m very happy for people to read the book and say ‘Oh wow, this has got a lot more than Andrew Davies managed to put in his crappy adaptation.
He’ll be turning his sights to Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ next, a few years down the line. “So, I’ve got something to live for,” and now, so do we.
Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature runs from March 3 to 11 2017, where you can sit in on talks by 180 authors from around the world. Follow the action with the #DubaiLitFest.