Alan Moore’s position on adaptations of his comics stories/series has developed down the years into a simple, unbending refusal to get involved with them. Similarly, Dave Sim has discarded any attempts to convert Cerebus or any part thereof into films. Both operate from the fundamental position that their work was conceived as, by and for comics, and that the mere attempt to translate them into an entirely different medium immediately destroys the work, by shaping it into a form that does not share the characteristics of the comic book form.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman do not share that reservation. The latest demonstration of this is the BBC Radio 4 six-part adaptation of their jointly-written novel, Good Omens, originally published in 1990. The series is being broadcast nightly throughout this week, at 11.30pm, though it began with a double-episode last night, the two episodes being available here and here on the BBC i-Player for those who are late tuning in.
The book is brilliantly funny and, as is usually the case with anything written by either of this pair, is also brilliantly wise and level-headed. I must have read it at least a dozen times since it first hit paperback and it’s still as fresh as new each time I delve into it again. It’s one of my favourite books.
The radio series falls flat on its arse.
I’m sorry to have to say that. I’d love to spend the week enjoying hearing the story take wings, and getting thrillingly involved in the absurdity and the terror of the tale: which, for the uninitiated, is about the End of Times, an eleven-year-old Antichrist and an Angel and a Demon who find themselves in peculiar agreement about not actually destroying anything at all, when it comes down to it. But two episodes in, I can tell that it just doesn’t work: actually, I didn’t need as many as two.
This is not due to any lack of talent or inspiration in the adaptation, nor to any real failing among the actors (though I’m not convinced by either Mark Heap as the Angel Aziraphale or Peter Serafinowicz as the Demon Crowley), but simply down to Moore’s stricture. This is a 300 page novel, featuring more two dozen characters in substantial roles, virtually none of whom can be subtracted from the plot without leaving it unworkable, set against a background of supernatural dealings and the machinations of a plan developed over millennia. It is an information and character dense story that the novel can explain its its own time, at satisfactory length, whilst entertaining the reader immensely. Very little of which can be left out.
And adaptor/director Dirk Maggs is required to represent all of this in six thirty-minute episodes. Three hours, in effect.
Now that may actually be longer by far than The Battle of the Five Armies but it’s still far from enough. There is too much book, and too much for the characters to have to explain to each other (for the benefit of the listener). For instance, episode 2 introduces Famine, currently going under the name of Raven Sable, promoter of foods that actually contain no foodstuffs whatsoever. Where Pratchett/Gaiman can present this as background information, as an insight into something the man as not yet officially identified as Famine is doing, secretively, in order to get the gag in and present us with Raven Sable, Maggs has to have him boast all these things to a subordinate, dramatically changing the scene and the character, to the detriment of both.
That’s just an example of the overt problems of having to get your actors to spell out the narrative background, but the greater problem, overall, is that you are then weighing down the characters’ actions and interactions by clogging up the air with explanations and sucking up minutes of air that would be far better be put to advancing the story.
With so much exposition to squeeze in, everything has to be done faster. Lines bat back and forth, volleyed at speed by a cast that would be a dozen times more effective if they were able to slow down.
If this were television, or film, there would be a better chance of giving the story room to breathe. With visuals, with sight, so much information can simply be displayed, seen and absorbed. There are so many more tale-telling devices open. Radio demands words. It needs voices. The baby-shuffling scene, where Satan’s son gets mixed up with that of an accountant instead of the American cultural attache, works beautifully on paper, and can simply be watched on screen: on radio, it doesn’t work for even one minute.
In short, it doesn’t work because it can’t work, because the book’s qualities are, in this instance, not capable of translation into a radio play, and because we are here short of the kind of interpretive genius who might be able to pull this off (always hedge your bets when it comes to geniuses, since they can do things that ordinary mortals can’t).
I might stick with it, in part for want of better alternatives, but I was already not really listening to about half of episode two, so I might just decide not to bother and stick something on that better uses the possibilities of Radio instead. Such a shame.