Tom Stoppard has likened screenwriting to writing left-handed, and while by this standard we have plenty of ambidextrous playwrights, few have displayed such a versatile command as he has. Stoppard’s screenwriting credits have ranged from prestige adaptations of Nabokov, Graham Greene, and Tolstoy to writing several drafts of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and much of the dialogue in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Tony Kushner hasn’t done that.)
Stoppard’s latest project is Parade’s End, a BBC/HBO 5-hour miniseries airing this week (it began yesterday) starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall. The series is based on a quartet of novels by Ford Madox Ford set in the years surrounding the First World War, drawing heavy inspiration from the author’s actual experiences on the Western front and, judging from the prose and biography, tumultuous romantic life. The novels once ranked exceedingly high in critical estimation. William Carlos Williams said that they “constitute the English prose masterpiece of their time.” Graham Greene prophesied, “there is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.” The problem is that, aside from his earlier novel The Good Soldier he hasn’t, really, and Parade’s End has fallen onto a somewhat dustier shelf of high modernism than the one it occupied originally.
It’s regrettable as the quartet is a masterful and technically intricate work concerning a love triangle between recondite Tory aristocrat Christopher Tietjens, his siren-like wife, Sylvia, and a young suffragette, Valentine Wannop, spanning the lead-up to World War I to shortly afterwards. Much of what makes it so interesting—an inwardly anguished protagonist, a length packed with dense free indirect discourse, not to mention a narrator that seems often unaware of the radical changes in tone of the material he is unspooling, from near-slapstick salon scenes to the abject horrors of trench warfare on the Western front—renders it a massive challenge for cinematic adaptation.
Enter Tom Stoppard. His adaptation, while engaging in substantial rearrangement of the novels, still manages to convey the essence of the work’s spirit and characters. It’s difficult to say that the series is a complete success, given some very obvious direction, hamfisted symbolic tropes, and a strangely unfulfilling final episode, but it affords great interest along the way, chiefly due to Stoppard’s nimble arrangement. He’s widely described the project as his most play-like and it’s easy to see why. He’s stretched the canvas of motivation and coincidence in some locations and clipped it in others (as is inevitable in any 5-hour adaptation with an enormous page count to trot through). Tietjens’ father, barely glimpsed in the novel, looms larger here. A lunatic reverend, Duchemin, too. Dialogue trimmed from other places in the novels arrives as guests in the series’ party scenes.
Given Stoppard’s reputation for unfailingly brisk repartee, it’s no surprise that he’s seen to include the novel’s sharpest dialogue with little alteration. Consider an original line:
turned only mildly to:
Other dialogue, though, is wholly original. Numerous actions within Ford’s novels aren’t ever addressed in dialogue, and others required reframing in order to be addressed in a remotely economical length; this affords the opportunity for countless wonderful Stoppard barbs.
“He couldn’t write me a letter because he’d have to put ‘Dear Sylvia’ in it, and I’m not.”
“I will be in my room praying for death, or at least packing for it.”
“My mother died from a medical condition, not a literary convention.”
If we’re simply going to quote witticisms, we could be here all day; other insertions are far more cinematic; a challenge, absent over 800 pages of backstory, is just how on earth the radically mismatched marriage at the novel’s core came about; an early scene of a hasty tryst in a train car offers a concise cinematic jolt of explanatory passion; if it’s not quite as pornographic as Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s congress in Don’t Look Now, it’s similarly effective in explaining just why a relationship is.
For a screenwriter celebrated for his dialogue, Stoppard’s increasing embrace of the visual possibilities of screenwriting has been undeniable. From his early, fairly direct adaptations of Nabokov’s Despair for Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Greene’s The Human Factor for Otto Preminger (Greene commented “you needn’t have stuck so closely to my original”) Stoppard’s vision has become far more cinematic over time.
A plot turning on mistaken identity is nothing new for Stoppard—try Hapgood or Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, obviously—and it seems only natural that Stoppard perceived the potential to be had in tumbling an insect into a typewriter to product the graphemic confusion of “Buttle” and “Tuttle” that sets into motion the plot of Brazil (which Stoppard co-wrote). It’s much more of a surprise to find (detailed in the notes for the Criterion edition of the film) Stoppard’s earlier conception of the film’s opening, a heavily fantastical sequence which involved that insect soaring along through the dystopian city, following a tree harvester to a paper plant, then printing paper rolls, then a memo in the ministry in which it meets its demise via bug-zapper.
Stoppard’s talent for sighting room for improvement in inevitable compressions remains a marvel; his process of breaking plots down into their essential elements and then building them up again reveals repeat instances of ingenious solutions to circumstances that either cannot be addressed at the length required, or might stand less believable on the screen than on the page.
In the introduction to his screenplay for the 2012 Anna Karenina film he notes his difficulty wrestling with Vronsky’s attempted suicide. He misses and the event essentially never comes up again:
As for the duel-that-never-was, this arose from an event in the novel on which I always stubbed my toe: Vronsky’s attempted suicide. He tries to shoot himself in the heart with his service revolver, but misses and makes a recovery so complete that this enormous event gets barely a mention afterwards. I have difficulty believing this in print, and a great deal more difficulty onscreen… Then I came up with the notion of suicide-by-duel. Another masterstroke! So my Vronsky contrived a deal with Captain Makhotin, intending to take the bullet, and Makhotin’s shot merely removed Vronsky’s epaulette.
The scene was not used, but stands a testament to Stoppard’s dramatic problem-solving.
And this is far from comprehensive. Stoppard’s also scripted Steven Spielberg’s J.G. Ballard adaptation Empire of the Sun, Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, Fred Schepisi’s Le Carre adaptation The Russia House and more. He’s unsurprisingly been recruited, credited or uncredited, to polish the work of others. Why is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade funny? Steven Spielberg’s commented, in an Empire Magazine oral history, that “Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue.”
You don’t need to guess at the authorship of Henry Jones Sr. lines for proof of Stoppard’s sense of fun, though. Upon receiving the 2013 Writers Guild of America’s Laurel Award earlier this month, given in recognition of “lifetime achievement in outstanding writing for motion pictures,” what did he have to say? He noted that he wished he had written Harold Ramis’ line “This chick is toast” from Ghostbusters.
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Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, The Daily Beast, Bookforum, and The Millions on urban policy, historic preservation, cinema, literature, and board wargaming. Previously for The Awl, he’s written about Soviet architecture and preservation of Brutalism.