Self-adaptation : the stage dramatisation of fiction by novelists
The stage dramatisation of fiction is a common and increasingly popular practice. Normally, a dramatist will take a novelist's work and adapt it, but there are cases dating back to at least the sixteenth century where novelists themselves have attempted to dramatise their own fiction. In the context of British theatre, it was not until the 1911 Copyright Act that novelists had copyright over the dramatisation of their original work. For this reason, novelists were obliged to adapt their own fiction to protect it against unauthorised dramatisation. Several authors, however, adapted their novels for more than reasons of copyright. The glamour of the West End and the potential for financial reward lured the novelists into adaptation. In the numerous adaptations of Henry James the language of the fictional narrator invades his scripts, in the form of stage directions or forced into the mouths of the characters. James is fascinated by the technical aspect of drama and he did make a substantial effort to rewrite Daisy Miller to make it suitable for the dramatic genre, but this includes a disappointing use of stage clichés as part of the mechanics of stagecraft (such as melodramatic techniques and the "happy ending"). Thomas Hardy was enthusiastic about the stage in his youth and had some innovative ideas for the stage but never fully realised his concepts. The adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles has some evocative imagery but is more like a medley of dramatic highlights separated by major ellipses than the panoramic and inexorable vision of the novel. In the adaptation of The Secret Agent, Conrad sustains a loyalty to the novel which mars the play with too many characters and an excess of exposition. Conrad's decision to be chronological in the adaptation strips the story of its sophistication and creates an uncompromising, even shocking, play. This could be seen as a merit as are Conrad's expressionistic touches and his treatment of heroism and insanity. Indeed, the play is a compulsive experience and claims that it is ahead of its time are perhaps justified.