Literary adaptations are always a difficult issue. For years fans wait for their favourite novels to make the transition to the big, or small, screen, so, when the time does come, expectation is at its highest and the slightest deviance from their vision of the book can quickly cause disappointment. Therein is the problem of the adaptation, as each reader has their own unique experience when reading a novel. No adaptation is ever going to please everyone. But Birdsong certainly gave it a good go.
The BBC drama introduced viewers to Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman who lodges with the Azaires in Amiens, France, in 1910. Here in the sweltering summer heat, Stephen embarks on a passionate affair with his host’s wife Isabelle, blissfully unaware of the impending World War and the chasm it will create in the heart of Europe. The first, obvious, point to make on the drama was that it rejected the chronological narrative of the book, preferring to alternate between the pre-war scenes and the latter scenes. This was unnerving at first, but fears that the interchanges would be at the detriment of the quality of the piece were unfounded. The scenes changed fluidly and with purpose. It actually made the programme more moving to have the juxtaposition between the old Stephen and the new, his apparent coldness contrasting with the exhilaration he felt when he was with Isabelle. One skilful example was the flickering between Stephen and Isabelle finally giving into their desires and Jack Firebrace hauling an injured Stephen out of the tunnels, the exchange conveying Stephen at his most exuberant and his most vulnerable. The adaptation was incredibly faithful to the book, keeping key scenes such as the pre-war trip to the water gardens and the emotional exchange between Stephen and his fellow soldier Douglas; the former, despite his efforts to remain detached from his comrades’ fates, consoling the latter, as he lies with his stomach ripped open.
The acting was also first-class. Eddie Redmayne’s performance has been criticised by some viewers, but, judging by the comments of many others, he may be in danger of acquiring his own fan/stalker club. Redmayne certainly looked the part, but he also managed to capture the essence of Stephen’s complicated personality; he is not a typical protagonist, so it was essential that he was shown as a character to be sympathetic towards, despite the constraints of adapting such an in-depth novel. Clémence Poésy was a delight as Isabelle, and Joseph Mawle deserves a mention for his performance as Firebrace, bringing the popular character firmly to life. Birdsong was an emotional ride, but one worth it for the stunning visuals and excellent performances.