I chose this series because I wanted to examine a narrative that exists in multiple mediums. That's the best way to analyze adaptation techniques. An especially good candidate would be the Sherlock Holmes stories, which have undergone countless adaptations over the years, in every medium possible. But though I do love Holmes (especially the BBC radio series with Clive Merrison), the Peake material is a bit richer.
The ABC radio version of the Gormenghast Trilogy was adapted by Michael le Moignan and Larry Lucas, with production by Frank Zeppel, Robert Cubbage, and David Chandler. It has two very unique features. One – it is the first adaptation to include the third novel, Titus Alone. Two – it is the longest adaptation, clocking in at eight hours.
Length is something that we are trained to be mindful of. Brevity is highly prized, and with good reason. But brevity and lengthiness are not always antagonistic. Some stories demand larger amounts of narrative space. The new series of Doctor Who is a great example of this – where the traditional format of a 90 minute Doctor Who story (the old four-parter) has given way to a 45 minute crunch of plot points. It leaves less time for the story to develop its own reality and sense of depth. Depth of course is just an illusion, a set of conventions (like “realism”) that we employ for effect. But it's a useful effect that allows narrative to be digested and believed.
The amount of narrative space in this adaptation of Gormenghast is the serial's greatest strength. The authors trusted the material, and gave the audience enough time inhabit the world in order to make it feel real and enveloping. In this case, it is especially important, because the story is fundamentally about that sense of place. Note how le Moignan and Lucas do not position Steerpike as the protagonist. We do not view this world through his eyes, the way we do in the TV adaptation. We shouldn't view it through his eyes, because he isn't the main character. Steerpike is a long-playing supporting role. In the series as a whole, Titus is the main character, he is the one whose psychology, in the third novel, we are eventually given primal access to. But underneath those first two books, especially when Titus is so young that he is essentially action-less, the place is the protagonist. It is the castle itself which arcs, imbuing everything with a strange, grotesque life force. The authors here have captured that, by allowing the story to unfold without centering on Steerpike, and by driving the story with a pitch-perfect narrator, who adds gravity while giving voice to the main set piece of the novels – Peake's volcanic prose.
While the language is properly front and center, this production is not without flaws. Namely, with regards to casting and vocal performances. While Prunesquallor is accurately rendered, Steerpike sounds like an irritated bureaucrat from the get-go, instead of a young, abused urchin. When we cannot see Steerpike's physical transformation, it is up to the performer to render it. Unfortunately the actor doesn't quite work. Likewise, Mr. Flay doesn't speak with the staccato, almost guttural rhythm that is the character's signature characteristic. Christopher Lee's performance in the TV adaptation is particularly successful in that regard.
My last quibble with the ABC adaptation are the Titus Alone segments. A bit of background here. The first two novels in the series take place in Gormenghast castle. In the third, Titus sets out alone into a bizarre approximation of the real world, complete with modern technology and ariel surveilance. During the writing of the third novel, Peake became more severely afflicted with the illness that later killed him. You can see in the prose an intense paranoia, a jagged quality that is a much different flavor than the first two books. You can see in those pages a man struggling with his own mind. This radio production fails to capture that.
It's not just a tonal difference. The attitude of the prose of the third novel is fundamental to the purpose and meaning – it renders the odd Kafkaesque scenes (such as the appearance before the Magistrate) with an unhappy relationship to the reality the story conveys. Peake sets up the pieces of the plot and then uses his writing to communicate to the audience that modernity is something that is scary and confusing and not as it should be. It's more than just the plot.
I can understand how the producers of an eight-hour radio serial would not want a sudden tonal shift in the last two episodes. It would be jarring and unpleasant. But that's why the production team should have been more aggressive in rendering it that way. Because it's part of the meaning of the story.
Overall, this is a good adaptation, if not the best production. Next up, I'll tackle the first BBC version, starring Sting.