Do writers ever truly finish anything? That’s what I wondered as I set about the 14th rewrite of what used to be my play ‘Celebrity’ and is transforming into something called ‘Falling Stars’. I’ve delivered four versions of my section of the movie ‘Bloody London’, of which the director Tom Shankland likes the latest and the producer likes the third, and I’m currently rewriting ‘Bryant & May In The Field’, a short story for the diamond jubilee of the CWA.
But these are all rewrites created before the final version appears. What happens when you continue tinkering afterwards? Famously, John Fowles rewrote ‘The Magus’ in its entirety years after it had been out. Charles Palliser didn’t quite do that with the confounding but dazzling ‘The Quincunx’ – he added a coda that was intended to explain the ending to puzzled readers but only confused us even more (do read it though, if you haven’t). I rewrote ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’, turning it into a proper Bryant & May novel, and would love to do the same with ‘Calabash’, not that anyone read the original.
In the theatre, this tinkering never stops. The other night I went to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see Maria Friedman’s version of ‘Merry We Roll Along’, probably the only musical ever to take cynicism and disillusionment as its main theme, and found it had changed dramatically from the last time I saw it. Based in turn on a Kaufman & Hart play that runs backwards through the lives of three friends who vow never to compromise their ideals and end up doing so horribly, the last version I saw began in a school. Now it starts with a woman being blinded, and has a slew of new sequences. Do they help? I’m not so sure.
This happens when the writer feels that the play in its present form doesn’t work, and attempts to resolve outstanding issues. The new version has in fact been around for a while, and is (for now, at least) accepted as the right one, but without the school scenes the play is hard for newbies to follow. Sondheim has rewritten ‘Bounce’/'Roadshow’ so many times now that I’ve lost count, and it still doesn’t work. At the centre of each is an unlikeable main character no-one can identify with.
And that, I think, is what all this rewriting comes down to; altering the plot and leaving the characters the same is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Not that ‘Merrily’ is a Titanic – it’s miles ahead of most other productions. I’ve mentioned a new version of the Swiss play ‘The Visit’ here before, scuppered first by 9/11 and then an endless series of problems. In this, a rich woman returns to the dying town where she grew up and agrees to help them in return for taking the the life of one decent man. Again, the problem is one of audience identification. She’s utterly unforgiving and cold.
The other night I was talking to Steve Watson, AKA SJ Watson, author of ‘Before I Go To Sleep’, about his upcoming film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, and the clever thing about Steve’s bestseller is the melding of plot and character (the heroine wakes up each day with no memory of the previous one) which renders it unassailable; change one thing and there’s no story.
This is a tough trick to pull off – most works can be rewritten to include new scenes, but it’s very rare to make something to tight that the removal or addition of any one element wrecks it. That’s where greatness lies, and it’s what we all strive for.
Are there other books and plays that have been overhauled after their initial release?