A few years ago I directed Christopher Sergel's beautiful adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. It was an epic production: the town, the trial, all the wonderful characters made flesh and blood before our very eyes. The richness and poetry of the novel were fully realized in a live theatrical event. This was not a clever conceit where six actors played all the parts, which can be marvelous in its own right, but a cast of 50, young, old, all shapes and sizes, the infinite variety one finds in any community. I just loved the experience, as did the audience. I longed for more.
So, I considered adapting my favorite novel, Great Expectations. What a challenge! I cherished all the characters and every line Dickens wrote. I was determined to retain all the plot threads, which Dickens so ingeniously pulled together at the novel's stunning conclusion. Previous film versions had left whole chunks of the story out, which was always disappointing. Like most people, I liked to see a beloved novel brought forth in as true a fashion as possible, not altering the ending or changing the characters or "improving" the book. Since I knew I could also direct the play at a theatre, which could afford a large cast and big production, I set forth.
I read and re-read and re-read the novel, each time marking key lines and plot points and character notes with different colored pens. The novel became a colorful mosaic of circles and underlines and exclamation points as well as, deletions and detailed notes to myself on how to jump from here to there, how to combine these two lines, how an actor could double roles, concepts for staging, etc. Slowly a plan emerged. I realized that the key to the journey was older Pip narrating a flashback of his entire life only picking up real present time at the very end of the play. This allowed for quick jumps in place and time, as long as Pip made it clear for the audience. I was ready to start the adaptation—determined to "get it right".
The first draft was very long and took several months as I worked my way through the novel considering every word, every moment. Once it was all out, I really had something concrete to work with. Now it was a play and not a novel and I could deal with it as such. I started cutting, heightening certain scenes for their dramatic effect, contrasting romantic scenes with comic scenes or tragic scenes, etc. Thank God for computers! How quickly the editing process can go. I rewrote about 10 times. Then I carefully went back and examined the through line for each character to see if I had created a good role for every actor that built well, made sense, and was playable and as compact as possible. There was a lot of editing of dialogue to make it sound like natural speech, sacrificing some of Dickens' glorious prose and run-on sentences to get to a lean, dramatic style of writing. It was then that I realized that if I could give the true essence of the book, people might actually go back and read it and savor all the wonderful bon mots for themselves. They didn't all have to be in the play!
Of course, there was more editing during rehearsals, sometimes because the words simply didn't sound good coming out of an actor's mouth, sometimes because the dramatic thread needed strengthening, and sometimes a comic moment emerged with honing the dialogue. Sometimes an actor would make a suggestion. I required the large cast to read the novel before starting rehearsals and use it as their Bible. So, from time to time, an actor would contribute a phrase here and there which clarified their character and it would be incorporated. All in all, it was an exhilarating process.
During the research I discovered that Great Expectations was the most successful 19th century British novel, followed by A Tale of Two Cities, Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I'd had such joy and success with my first attempt that I moved on through the list and now have adapted all of them, except the 1,000-page Vanity Fair. My vanity cannot encompass that fair! Each creative process got easier and tighter. As I marked up each new novel, I was more ruthless and more clear as to what would be theatrical. Each new first draft became leaner and tighter, so less editing work followed because I'd already done that during the research process.
Recently, a high-school drama group visited me at the Paper Mill Playhouse. They were in the middle of rehearsing my adaptation of Jane Eyre. As they sat around me, I had great fun guessing who was playing which character, and we discussed how they were approaching some of the difficult scenes. We were all talking about Charlotte Bronte's people as though they were family—what motivated them, why they were the way they were, what they looked like. I was so happy to see a great novel truly alive in the minds of these young people as they all entered enthusiastically into the discussion.
I felt that I had succeeded in my mission to keep great literature alive for succeeding generations—to honor the truth and genius of the great writers I was adapting and to create a new work in its own right, a play. As I think of productions of these adaptations in such far-flung locales as Cairo and Alaska and Cambridge, England, I imagine the discussions, the arguments, the struggles to "get it right," as each group takes the novel to its heart. It's a very good feeling.