Thinking Aloud – A Different Kind of Weird

The grand plan for this evening was to write about the new dramatisation of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen which ran on Radio 4 this afternoon. I’d been looking forward to this all week; Radio 4’s previous dramatisation, done some 25 years ago, so far as I can remember, lacked a certain something as the child actors were not terribly good, and tended to put … the emphases … in … all the wrong places (though the adults weren’t too bad, particularly the actor playing Gowther Mossock).

As it turned out, today’s programme also lacked a certain something. It lacked the entire Earldelving sequence, the part where Colin and Susan, aided by Fenodyree and Durathror, make a terrifying journey through narrow tunnels under Alderley Edge, pushing and pulling themselves along on their stomachs, constantly at risk of becoming trapped. It is a tour de force of storytelling, the single best sequence in the entire book, the moment when you know just how good a writer Alan Garner is capable of being. I still find it very difficult to read, except for that wonderful moment of relief when they escape, finally, into daylight, and meet the Stromkarl sitting on the Goldenstone.

And it wasn’t there in the dramatisation. Given I consider it to be the spine of the narrative, its own Alderley Edge, so to speak, this was a disappointment, to say the least. It’s also an important aspect of the story in that it is a rite-of-passage for the children, earning them the right to participate in what is to come. But, never mind.

Trying to figure out what was in the mind of the writer when he did this is perhaps wasted effort, but I did go back and read the novel this evening, and it confirmed my feeling, listening to the adaptation, that the writer had pretty much used the first few chapters wholesale, including small fussy details that could have been pruned out of an hour-long story without losing anything (the previous adaptation was an hour and a half in length; the extra half hour allows for such a luxury, and indeed for using the Earldelving sequence). And then, perhaps the writer realised that he was running out of time and needed to speed up, so dropped the Earldelving sequence in order to wallow around miserably at the end in a battle sequence that was rather too long for what it is in the novel, but everything needs to end with a battle, right?

It’s undeniable that in some ways The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a difficult novel to adapt. When you look at it closely, it is several sequences linked together rather than one sustained piece of storytelling, and as a result it might be difficult to keep the momentum going. Having said that, I think it would have been possible, even with an hour slot, to produce something rather better balanced than this production was.

Many years ago I began to train to abridge books for a certain organisation that made a feature out of marketing such things. Unfortunately, the editorial department had a reorganisation before I got too far so my glorious career as an abridger was stillborn, but I got as far as understanding that what seemed to be needed was to isolate a series of key events, and keep a good deal of the detail surrounding them, while constructing bridging passages to move between the key events.

Bearing that in mind, the problem with the first section of The Weirdstonebecomes a little more obvious, in that it has few large events, but an awful lot of scene-setting in terms of the legend of the wizard, getting Alderley Edge firmly established as a place, etc. Except, and may god forgive me for this, Alderley Edge really doesn’t matter that much in terms of place in a radio adaptation, because you are not going to see it. A few words to establish the relationship between the Mossocks and the land, self-evident in the telling of the story anyway, onto exploring, svart-alfar, Cadellin, Susan’s Tear, then squeeze the period of time between the loss of the Weirdstone and Grimnir’s move to Selina Place’s house, and hey presto, time for the Earldelving.

There are deeper issues lurking under this, of course, such as Radio 4’s reluctance to produce any drama longer than an hour, these days, as though they don’t trust the audience to sustain concentration, leading to such travesties as the entire Mahabharata dramatised in two hours, and other such nonsense.

So, disappointment over something that could have been so good, but a chance to reread The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is never to be sniffed at, and it might be time to reread my entire Garner collection, so another project beckons in the new year. 

And if you want to listen to the production of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, it is available here for a week. It’s not bad, so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go underground as it should.