Sunday, August 28, 2016

The difficulty of filming Swallows and Amazons

Recently I saw the new film of Swallows and Amazons, but before a review a few comments about the difficulty of the task.

Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons must be a hard book to convert into a film - or at least hard in 2016, the era of Harry Potter and, god-help-us-all, the endless re-hashed superheros and battling robots.

Books are often defined by the promise from the earliest chapters - i.e. how is the book framed for the reader, what expectations can they have for the story to come?

An excellent example of this is Chapter 1 of Book 1 of the Harry Potter series in which we learn that our hero has a mortal enemy who is the evil wizard that killed his parents. So that's the peril, the difficulty to overcome and the necessary resolution all made clear - plus major characters like Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid and the Dursleys all introduced.

But in chapter 1 of Swallows and Amazons they learn they are to be allowed to camp on an island, with no sign of the primary plots of Amazons or Captain Flint which evolve later.

It comes from a different time, where more children roamed outdoors - or wished they could - and there were no apps to distract. The style is bordering on episodic, like Dicken's Pickwick Papers, where much of the story involves the characters travelling the countryside, having adventures.

So in one chapter, called prosaically "More Island Life", the Swallows go fishing and catch some but lose one to a pike (above) - and that's it.

I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing in a book, but it makes it harder to market as the current style is for the story to hit the ground running with peril from page one.

Part of this comes from the writer: he was describing scenes from his childhood and stories he told his friend's children, not sitting down with a plan for a book. That came later - and the following books are definitely better structured and plotted. There is clear peril in The Big Six or We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea.

But it gives film producers a headache: do they:

  • Accept the slower pace (as per the 1974 film)
  • Jump into these better plotted books (as the BBC did with the 1984 series)
  • Re-write the plot to introduce drama (as per the 2016 film)?

Back in the 1970s I read the book then saw the earlier film which still has a certain magic for me. All the characters are as I imagined them in the book(s), the sailing was pretty good and it stayed close to story as written by Arthur Ransome. And I loved the behind the scenes stories of the filming in the ebook from Sophie Neville aka the girl who was Titty.

So what of the new film...

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