Find it in TV, Radio and Book form
I believe Neverwhere is an excellent story – how could it be anything less to convince Avon Publishing House, BBC Television and BBC Radio. Have they done the story justice?
Neverwhere began life, in the way these things do, as a television series I was asked to write for the BBC. And while the show that was broadcast was not necessarily a bad television series… With every scene that was cut, every line that vanished, everything that was simply changed, I’d announce ‘Not a problem. I’ll put it back in the novel,’ and thus regain my equilibrium. This went on until the day that the producer came over and said, ‘We’re cutting the scene on page twenty-four, and if you say I’ll put it back in the novel I’ll kill you.’
After that, I only thought it.
Neil Gaiman, in the introduction to his preferred text of Neverwhere
Clearly, in Neil’s opinion there are differences between his book and the television series. Are these versions so different? And why? Here’s a quick synopsis for those who haven’t experienced Neverwhere. If you don’t want to spoil it, look away now.
The story is about Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish businessman living in London. He has a job, a fiancée and a place to call his own, until he saves a young woman named Door as she lies bleeding on the pavement. Then everything changes. Richard’s friends have forgotten him, his desk has been cleared and his fiancée doesn’t even know his name. With nowhere else to go, he slips into the world of the forgotten and ignored – London Below. He rejoins Door and embarks on a journey to find the Angel Islington with the aid of their companions, the flamboyant trickster The Marquis de Carabas and the stoic Hunter, while attempting to stay one step ahead of the cruel Mr Croup and Vandemar.
Can this story be told in different ways? Yes. It all depends on how a story reaches us through our senses, and how successful these mediums are at telling the story. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, ‘The medium is the message’, the form imprints itself on the story.
Adaptations should be different. Why else would we buy the book, film and the t-shirt? Films and TV episodes are often criticised for ‘leaving bits out’, but while I will sit for hours reading, I could not do this with a film. My eyes would get tired, I’d get up to go to the loo and miss things. Adaptations should make the most of what that medium can offer.
Television is visual and auditory, and the BBC found some stunning talent for us to watch; such as Tamsin Greig (known for her work with Black Books), Paterson Joseph (Casualty) and Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It). Unfortunately, we watched them blurrily through the lens of poorly suited equipment. Many scenes were short in low light, causing the image to be grainy. The scene with the Angel Islington surrounded by candles should have been amazing. But upping the white balance was just garish. These tricks are difficult, but without them, I felt the effect was ruined.
Being edited is always difficult and as scenes and dialogue were cut from his script, Neil wasn’t happy, but was content saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll put it in the book’. It’s part of the medium. A book is a leisurely thing compared to a TV series of six half-hour episodes. Each episode must have its own beginning, middle and end for the viewers to feel satisfied. You can’t stop and use a bookmark.
Neil was writing the book as it was filmed, and reportedly sat writing in Richard’s kitchen. Imagine having your character’s house created for you, using it to write in.
Books are purely visual, even with the move into ebooks, sound has remained separate. This was Neil’s chance to tell the story as he wanted. Or was it? Having interned at several publishing houses, I have seen the editing process completely alter a book. A poorly written manuscript can be polished to a magnificent standard, or considered too experimental and is forced to ‘rein in’ its creative spirit.
Across England you will hear the slamming down of a phone and the hushed phrase ‘bloody authors’, because although editors and writers cannot exist without the other, that doesn’t mean that they always agree.
I read the novel before seeing the TV series or hearing the Radio adaptation, and I’m glad I did. The BBC have tight schedules, and the book was not forced to conform to a time limit. Without illustrations my mind was free to wander the streets of London Below and imagine its appearance for myself. No camera man, no lighting techie – just the author directing me through his world.
The difficulty with defining Neverwhere as a book is the multitude of book genres available. Is it a children’s book, young adult, or fantasy? I’d say all three. The dark themes make this a book for older children, but similarly to his book Coraline, Neil Gaiman is not afraid to scare his readers. Book shops need to put books on the right shelves for readers to find them, and I worry that readers may not have picked up Neverwhere, or will have brought it expecting something else. Again, this is a problem of the medium, not the story itself.
Radio is the voice in your ear, telling you the news, a story or the weather report. It is also very personal. Sudden, loud noises make us jump, they affect us, and this medium is so personal that swearing is very rare or banned on certain programmes. Radio is not currently fashionable as most people watch TV rather than tuning in. However, commuting to and from work has kept listener numbers high. That, and putting on adaptations of well-loved stories and dramas.
Again the BBC found an excellent cast, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christopher Lee and James McAvoy are just a few of the star-studded names gracing the bill of this production. This time their voices were crystal clear, with no need for visuals. There was even a cameo appearance by Neil playing the Fop (with no name) and a security guard.
Radio is cheap to produce and only needs a scheduled slot, with no unit cost. Like the book, I am free to imagine the character’s appearance, but helped by their voices and others’ reactions to imagine them. I was unsure whether certain sections would be possible. For example, the crossing of Knight’s Bridge. Hunter, Richard and a rat speaker Anesthesia have to cross a bridge in complete darkness. To portray the fear and loneliness of the passage, the character’s call out to one another, and Anesthesia screams out as she is snatched away by unseen hands.
The Angel Islington was another challenge for the Radio adaptation. As the villain of the story, his voice needed to be suitably scary, so that the hints are there when Richard and Door first meet him. Yet when they arrive to give him the key, his true colours are revealed. I feel Cumberbatch’s deep, lyrical portrayal of the Angel, coupled with the latin, angelic theme tune, set the atmosphere for the story and the character.
Which is best?
Which medium you prefer is up to you, but I hope I’ve helped you consider that all adaptations are valid and should be considered in their own right. Things may be edited, cut or changed, but these changes are made to fit the viewer’s perceived tastes and the product’s format.
If you’ve seen, read and listened to Neverwhere in all formats – why not tell me what you think? If you haven’t experienced any, go forth and find Neverwhere. It’s by Neil Gaiman, the worst that could happen is you’ll enjoy yourself. And to those who’ve only seen Neverwhere in one or two mediums, search and enjoy – preferably with the ordeal of a cup of tea.