Tuesday, 3 August 2010

That joke isn't funny any more

I don’t watch enormous quantities of television. What I do watch has been fairly precisely identified by a mysterious focus group at the BBC responsible for making sure that there are always one or two programmes on for People Like Me, and making sure the next one isn’t far away when a series ends. It’s probably possible to construct a new system of seasons by replacing spring, autumn and that lot with Hustle, Doctor Who, Spooks and Being Human (okay, this one’s only had two series, but I need a replacement for David Bowie’s Coma Cops, or whatever the overall title for Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is. The Hunt Supremacy? Misogyny and Fisticuffs Through the Ages?).

Anyway, there’s been a bit of a summer gap in the regulars (although I gather there are some more Spooks on their way, which is just as well, because I’ve forgotten which characters are still alive), so I’ve found myself staring at a number of book adaptations, beginning with a DVD copy of the old Neverwhere series, moving on to Sky’s Going Postal and the Beeb’s Money, and now hitting Sherlock, which had its second episode on Sunday. 

The thing that intrigues me here isn’t how far they are faithful to their sources (not very, on the whole), or how good they are (sticking with ‘not very’ for Neverwhere, and gradually working up to rather decent for Sherlock and its solid approach to Victorian melodrama with added mobile phones), but their approach to humour.

Inappropriate laughter
I think humour is important in television drama. First, it is simply enjoyable. Second, and more importantly to this kind character-based, narrative television (as opposed to sketch shows or sitcoms, where the humour is almost everything), it is a way of developing and making the audience care about the characters. If you find yourself laughing at someone, you’ll be inclined to like them, and that makes you care about them. Handy for television. This is one of the problems with, say, 24 (watch it for plot, suspense or action by all means, but there is nothing likeable and barely anything human about Jack Bauer, partly because he’s about as funny as Lee Evans at a funeral), and possibly one of the reasons why people become so invested in House and The West Wing

Of the four things I’ve watched recently, three are based on amusing books (okay, the Neverwhere novel actually came after the television series, but this doesn’t really change much). Going Postal is fairly straightforwardly comic, both in humour and in structure. Money is not exactly a comedy – it’s too grim for that – but it is extremely funny. I’m probably on firmer ground calling it a satire – it’s filled with excess and shock that are used to produce brutal, scathing social comment. The jokes are just an added extra. Neverwhere, for all its horror tropes and gothy makeup, is not a thousand miles from being a comic fantasy, since although there’s plenty of peril there is also a lightness of tone and a chirpy heroism behind it. Also, like Money, plenty of wisecracking, even (especially) from the creepy villains.

The exception, then, is Sherlock Holmes. Not that the tales are dreary, witless slogs – they’re thoroughly enjoyable, although I think I may be more of a Professor Challenger man, and I’d take Chesterton’s Father Brown over either any day of the week – but simply that they aren’t comedies.

Now plonk them all on television, and somehow, strangely, the most consistently amusing one is Sherlock, which might as well be called Sherlock Who, since it’s basically the same as the last series of everyone’s favourite campy time-travelling adventure show, but with Martin Freeman instead of Karen Gillan (a pretty unfair trade, if you ask me or any other sane hetero male. Ahem. TV's a visual medium, right?). Both focus on an awfully clever but socially awkward chap with slightly silly hair bounding around solving everyone’s problems, while an innocent sidekick potters along asking questions to give excuses for the hero’s fast-talking, technobabbly explanations of what’s going on. Yes, Sherlock has more murders and fewer beasties from the nether regions of the universe, but the principle is the same. As are the writers, which might have something to do with it.

This similarity is probably why the first episode of Sherlock was very funny, and the second one reasonably laughsome too, despite their being murder mysteries in which folks of varying degrees of innocence are knocked off by bad sorts. It’s mostly classic character stuff: isn’t our title character weird, and isn’t it fun watching him bewilder the mundanes around him? This helps the show: with only three episodes and a strict crime/investigation/solution format, they need to hook us on the characters. By and large, they succeed.

The drought
Why, then, are the others not very amusing at all? Yes, there were a few chuckles to be had in each of Going Postal, Money and Neverwhere, but all were fairly dry compared to their source material. This could, perhaps, be blamed simply on quality, but I think it goes a bit further. For all their flaws (and this isn’t intended as a review), I enjoyed watching all three – I just didn’t spend a long time laughing at them.

The casting suggests that the producers were thinking about this. Neverwhere seems to have been assembled by walking across the sets of British comedies of the 1990s and dragging minor characters away. It’s one of those programmes where every few minutes makes you point at the screen and shout ‘that’s her, you know,  off thingy!’. Going Postal, too, is far from short on big names used to scripts with laughter cues. In fact, there’s some overlap, too, in the form of the always-excellent Tamsin Greig (or Fran from Black Books, as a large portion of my brain will forever refer to her). Money aims more for bleak drama, but it’s hard not to see the casting of Nick Frost in the lead role as an attempt to get some comedy respectability too. In fact, I think it’s a mistake, because he’s far too likeable to be a convincing John Self, and in toning down the raucous, hideous elements of his character to fit the actor, they’ve lost a lot of what made the book so evilly hilarious.

Compare Sherlock, where they’ve grabbed a great big comedy name in the shape of Martin Freeman, but dodged accusations of playing it for laughs by making him the straight man (although I suppose he always is, to some degree).

So no, it’s not the casting or the quality of the production – after all, a good joke can be funny even if the rest is rubbish, as opposed to a dramatic scene (Neverwhere’s ending), which relies on the viewer being interested and invested in the rest of the programme.

In the end, I think it comes down to two main points.

Cutting remarks
The first, and lesser, of the two points is that humour is the first thing to go. If you’ve got two, three or four hours to tell a tale, including credits, advert breaks and establishing shots, you’re going to have to lop bits off. Yes, complaining about what’s left out is the standard reaction of a fan to an adaptation, but it goes further than leaving out scenes. With certain (brilliant) exceptions, like the cake/biscuit distinction in Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy, jokes aren’t vital to plots. This means they’re considerably easier for a pencil-wielding television writer to remove, if necessary quite violently. Zapping whole segments of plot is far more likely to destabilise the narrative than just removing the bits that make it enjoyable. That's how you end up with things like Sky's Going Postal, which while reasonably faithful, was actually quite dull. In the hands of Rupert Murdoch’s evil minions, it worked better as a romance than as a comedy.

Prose and cons
The second point is that humour works very differently in books and in scripts. It’s easy to assume (I know I did) that because a novel is funny an adaptation of it will be too. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be that simple. Television humour is usually drawn from dialogue and character, with visual, physical comedy thrown in too. This is because that’s what television offers: tiny people moving about inside a magic box. Books, on the other hand, have all sorts of other tricks: descriptions, characters’ thoughts, and even footnotes. Not only is a lot of the humour in these three books contained in things that just don’t work on television, but there’s also interplay between them: jokes in dialogue can end up relying on unspoken lines in order to be funny.

Money, in particular, suffered from this. The greatness (and repulsiveness) of the book lies in the narrative voice. The television version tried to retain this with a bit of a voice-over, but it didn’t quite work – we still weren’t anywhere near being inside John Self’s head. In the book there is no escape from his voice, even when he isn’t speaking. The television simply could not emulate this, and so found itself flailing around wondering why it wasn’t quite working.

Televised humour also relies on timing and delivery (it’s the way you tell ‘em, etc). Although writers do have to deal with this, it works slightly differently. The rhythm isn’t purely spoken, and the timing can be altered by plonking description in between bits of dialogue. This means that even when the dialogue is the source of the humour, it won’t necessarily convert without some tarting about. Only, er, I can’t think of any examples. I watched them a while ago, okay?

Stating the obvious
Basically, what this comes down to is that Sherlock does better because it’s merely inspired by Sherlock Holmes – a more faithful kind of adaptation is inherently flawed because of the differences between books and moving pictures. And that, I think, is why nobody is ever quite satisfied with adaptations.

Great. I’ve just spent 1,500 words explaining what everyone already knew. Oh well.  

PS: Yes, I'm going for a more inclusive labelling policy. Might even go back and jigger about with older posts. This might be a cunning new policy, or it might just be a sign that I have nothing more useful to do with myself this evening.

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