This Sunday, two Charlotte Grimshaw novels come to the screen in the form of The Bad Seed. She writes about the experience of having her work adapted for TV.
This month, a small team arrived at my door. As part of publicity for the adaptation of my novels The Night Book and Soon into TV show The Bad Seed, I’d been asked to do an interview for a magazine. They trooped in, young, charming, good-looking: a publicist, an interviewer, a hair and makeup artist, a stylist, a photographer. Over an improbable number of hours they would adapt me into the person the magazine expected me to be.
A publication like this has a required template. You will have big hair, heavy makeup, a rictus smile. It’s about turning your reality into “reality.” As a beautiful young man, the stylist (apparently the recent winner of a reality TV fashion show) sweetly tried to persuade me into a pink pantsuit, I was right up at the height of private amusement. Were readers to picture the writer languidly making her way to her desk, there to grind out an essay on Knausgaard, or some complicated piece of meta fiction, dressed in this creation, with its furry texture, its giant flared pants, its glaring pinkness? I had said, No dresses. The beautiful young man, undeterred, had gone one better. The pink pantsuit was a sensation. I predict greatness for whomever he can get to wear it.
The process of adapting my novels The Night Book and Soon began some time ago, when producer Robin Scholes approached me with the idea of a TV series. I was cautiously all for it. I was pleased TVNZ wanted to tell a New Zealand story, using local fiction. I knew Robin’s excellent track record, and that she of all people could make it happen. Like everyone else, I’ve been delighted by the evolution of TV from universally dire when I was growing up, to a vehicle for serious art.
I was firm on one thing though: I didn’t want to write a screenplay myself. I once had a conversation with Jane Campion about this. I said, “Screenplays aren’t my skill. If someone wanted to make a musical of my books, or a ballet, I wouldn’t turn my hand to that.” (All seriousness was lost at the mention of a ballet, naturally.) I was inflexible back then; now my position has slightly changed. Having experienced the making of The Bad Seed I might consider writing a screenplay, but only if I could be in sole creative control. That, of course, is unlikely.
Early on, Robin introduced me to a screenwriter, who talked reverently about my work. He seized my hand, thanking me for my novels. Over the months I kept hearing this: “Thank you for your wonderful work.” I was pleased to be thanked, but I reflected on it too, turning it over in my mind. The thanking seemed loaded with meaning, a gratitude that might also convey a shiftiness, even a guilty sense of power. Imagine how sinister it would be, I thought, if the babysitter thanked you for your beautiful child.
The immediate response would be, Hang on, I’m not giving her to you. Was it going too far to speculate that the thanking was partly an attempt to soothe nervousness on my part, an acknowledgment that I might be horrified when I discovered the consternating transformation inflicted on my precious work? As it happened, that early and thankful writer came up with a draft episode so riddled with cliché, schmaltz and outdated idioms, I had to restrain myself from setting fire to it. But we’ve come a long way since then. That writer moved on, the episode was put aside and much better writers took over. A long process of working and reworking had begun.
I didn’t need thanking or soothing, nor was I worried. I wasn’t writing the screenplay, so I could happily regard the show as an original adaptation of my work. I was pleased Penguin Random House were to republish the two books as a compilation titled, The Bad Seed (available now at all good bookshops!) And nothing, no process or transformation, could change the novels themselves.
The Night Book and Soon stand; they are their own entities, the strange, idiosyncratic products of my imagination, with their preoccupations: politics, power, crime and secrets. They are firmly literary in their aims, influences and references – to Dickens, Chekhov, Balzac, Katherine Mansfield. The novels can’t be altered or ruined, or taken or kept. Everything else is entertainment.
During the making of The Bad Seed, I enjoyed myself hugely, reading the screenplays and commenting on every episode. I learned a bit about how television is made, and how actors work. I pored over photos of actors being considered for the principal roles. I discussed plot and dialogue, suspense and control. I attended read-throughs, watching the actors’ faces. I discovered the transformative power of performance. When I ran my red pen, as I did frequently (I’m a compulsive editor) through lines of dialogue (sometimes the writers listened to me, sometimes they didn’t; it was their call) Robin would say, “Wait until you hear them deliver it. Actors this good can transform words.”
I didn‘t believe her, until I sat in the screening room. Watching the cast, knowing how the show had been put together, layer by layer, I had a true appreciation of the talent involved. I was struck by the actors’ skill and charisma, their subtlety and force. I was captivated by the powerful performances of Dean O’Gorman, Matt Minto, Jodie Hillock and Chelsie Preston Crayford. It was eerie to watch people transforming themselves into characters I’d invented and named, who still live in my head.
This was what I found most diverting, so much so that for me, it was almost immaterial what plot elements had been turned upside down, or to what degree the focus of the novels had been altered (and turned thriller-ish) for television. I sat in the screening room hearing those familiar names, my imagined reality turned “real”, and I thought, I will write some fiction about this.
The Bad Seed is playing on TVNZ1 over five nights, starting this Sunday at 8:30PM.
Charlotte Grimshaw’s novels The Night Book and Soon are now available as an omnibus edition, The Bad Seed.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.