Groundhog day getting you down? Here’s my trick for breaking the monotony Hadley Freeman
I suspect I’m not alone in this but, at some point in the past two weeks, I hit my lockdown wall. Not literally, although apparently the “banging one’s head against the kitchen wall” phase kicks in on the eighth week, so that’s something to put in the diary. But last week I felt really, really over it. Enough with every day being the bloody same; enough with watching my children become increasingly fretful because they haven’t seen their friends in over a month, the equivalent of five years to a pair of four-year-olds. But unless you want to be one of those delightful people protesting the lockdown in the US, clothed in stars and stripes, AK-47s across their backs, what choice do we have? So, like Bill Murray, we grind out the same day, again and again and again.
The trick is to invent things to look forward to. For a while, “supper” and “wine” were sufficient, but repetition has dulled their efficacy. So I set myself challenges, driven on by the thrill of completion. Some people hear the word “challenge” and think, “Fitness!” Those people are not me. “Rewatch the entirety of 30 Rock” is more my speed. It is so soothing to watch a show about a luxuriantly bouffanted New York tycoon who isn’t a moron. In a just world, Jack Donaghy would be the US president instead of, well, you get the point. Then, sparked by his brilliant turn as Chris Tarrant on the ITV drama, Quiz, my next challenge was, “Watch every Michael Sheen performance in which he plays a real person”. This was deeply enjoyable, even if, in my lockdown-confused mind, I now think Brian Clough interviewed Richard Nixon on TV and Kenneth Williams was prime minister when Diana died.
Now I’m watching every adaptation that is better than its source material. This was inspired by the BBC’s gorgeous take on Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, co-written by Rooney with Alice Birch. I enjoyed the original novel – of course I did. But it felt to me like a young person’s book, which it was, given Rooney was about 12 when she wrote it.
But the adaptation opens up the book, so that instead of being about Marianne and Connell’s specific relationship, it becomes something more subtle and universal. In the book we don’t have the moment when Connell betrays Marianne by asking another girl to the end-of-year dance, because he fears his friends’ reaction; we learn about this when he tells his mother. But on TV we see what happens next, which is that Connell is then surrounded by his friends in the golden afternoon sun. It’s impossible not to remember at that point how lovely and safe it felt to hang out with your schoolfriends when you were a teenager, and we feel exactly what Connell was so scared of losing. It’s a small shift, making it a film about our own memories; it’s why, I suspect, so many former teenagers have been raving.
Adaptations that surpass their original are an elite group. The Godfather, Jaws, The Birds, Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption are commonly cited examples, but I’m going to be controversial here. Quite a few adaptations of canonical literature are better than the originals, because a lot of 19th-century novels could have done with editing, and I’m looking at you, Charles Dickens. The BBC’s 1985 version of Bleak House, starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott, was so good it inspired me to study English literature at university, where I then learned the adaptation was superior, having kept the spirit of the original but cut the waffle. Similarly, it is the verdict of this graduate that The Muppet Christmas Carol is far better than Dickens’ original.
I love it when a minor character is given unexpected depth, thanks to a skilful actor. Simon Russell Beale turned the barely sketched-out character of Charles Musgrove in Jane Austen’s Persuasion into a sweet scene-stealer in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation. In the BBC’s 1998 take on Our Mutual Friend, David Morrissey turned the two-dimensional creep Bradley Headstone into the devastating heart of the story. Meanwhile, the entire cast of The Remains Of The Day is so great that I prefer the film to Kazuo Ishiguro’s book – and I love that book.
Best of all is when the original and an adaptation have become entirely interwoven. Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 film Adaptation is so derangedly detached from its inspiration, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, that the two are hard to compare; and yet they enhance one another, being so brilliant, albeit in very different ways. Then there’s William Goldman’s 1973 novel The Princess Bride, which most people know only from the 1987 movie, which Goldman also wrote. Those people are missing out. It’s true the book doesn’t have the movie’s catchphrases, but the film doesn’t have the novel’s brilliant gimmick – which is Goldman pretending the book is itself an adaptation of another very long and very dull book by someone called “S Morgenstern”, with Goldman giving us just “the good parts”.
Everyone (I hope) knows this movie is the perfect family lockdown watch, but I’d also recommend the book as the perfect lockdown read. It plays on the fantasy that it’s possible to skip life’s awful longeurs, and suggests that, even in the most hopelessly drawn-out moments, happily ever after is only a few pages away.