Birdsong – Part 1 Reviewed

I enjoyed reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks immensely. But so often TV adaptions just don’t cut the mustard. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best any screenwriter can hope for is to make an ‘OK’ version, that doesn’t sell out on the book too much. To be honest, I haven’t ever seen a TV drama that was better than the book in question. Is that because with a book, we have the bare bones, but we paint the canvas in our minds? Whereas with TV, everything is much more proscribed? I wonder. But there is a place for the TV drama – many people watch a TV programme who would never read a book. After all, how many people got into Sharpe through the books rather than the TV series?

But I think the Beeb did quite well here. Certainly a lot of effort went into the set – tons of chalk were specially imported to match the Picardy terrain, and the make up and construction of the trenches, for example, seemed accurate to me. As far as I can remember it seemed pretty faithful to the book, with no major parts of the plot being substituted, nor any extra bits being added in. And for all the geeks, as far as I could tell, all of the cap badges, shoulder titles, weapons, uniforms etc seemed accurate ;)

I thought that the dramatic tension between the laidback pleasure seeking of peacetime, and the tragedy and bloody nature of war was even more effective than in the book. The incongrous nature of a steamy romp interspersed with men laid out ready for burial was most haunting and evocative. And the acting was very good, save for perhaps a few too many soppy glances.

The Great War is rising in public consciousness, thanks to War Horse and now Birdsong. I would expect this trend to continue for the next couple of years at least, right up until and beyond the centenary in 2014. The BBC look to have made a valuable contribution here by bringing Birdsong to a wider audience.

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6 Comments

Filed under western front, World War One

6 responses to “Birdsong – Part 1 Reviewed

  1. I agree. I think so far its a pretty good attempt at the book but there was way too much gazing and staring off into the distance! There was a couple of times when we just had to laugh because of all the staring, looking forward to seeing part 2 though!

    • James Daly

      Come to think of it there were an awful lot of pregnant pauses. I think I can see what they were trying to portray, but rather than atmosphere it just came across as vacuous. Apart from that I thought it wasn’t bad.

  2. See in the book you can hear what’s going through their minds and the descriptive details etc. this quality from the book was lost on screen. The only way they could try to incorporate it was with all the staring…maybe I’m completely wrong. Looking forward to part 2’s review! :)

    • James Daly

      Very true. People seem to assume that TV brings a story to life more than a book can. But a book is only a basis, every reader will imagine something slightly different in their minds, and you can in a lot of ways be more descriptive with ‘off the record’ text, that you cannot incorporate in TV.

      Interesting dilemma there – I wouldn’t want to be a screenwriter adapting a succesful book for screen!

  3. Ive just finished watchin part one and I found it to be a brilliant adaptation of the book. Its been a while since I read the book but what I found particularly moving was the way Sebastian Faulks contrasted the best of human impulses with the very worst. I felt that the TV adaptation did this superbly. The scene in 1910 Amiens by the riverside was very well done (this is probably the novels most well known scene, the famous ankle touching). During this scene the River was teeming with life: Lush green trees, bright blue water, the titular ‘Birdsong’ in the background – even the boy catching live newts added to the atmosphere. Then it cuts back to The Somme where dead, half blown to pieces trees litter no mans land, and the earth is dusty and barren everywhere. Added to this is Stephens change in personality – in 1910 Amiens he is young, bright eyed and hopeful. Six years later and his lust for life (not just for Isabelle) is completely destroyed by war. He coldheartedly threatens to have Jack Firebrace shot for falling asleep on duty. The screenwriters (and Faulks before them) have essentially shown war for the complete tragedy that it is, it removes all humanity from men. As one character says in the book:

    ‘This is not a war. It is an examination of how far men can degrade themselves.’

    Brilliant Stuff.

    • James Daly

      Nice review, well done Scott. Interesting that you focus very much on the literary aspect, whereas I was drawn to the historical elements.

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