Audio Fever

I have always been partial to audio performances of books. These days, I listen mostly to books-on-tape (unabridged, of course). I also enjoy radio dramatizations, about which I have some particular likes and dislikes. I started listening to dramatizations when I was really young. We had the Let's Pretend collection of records, dramatized fairytales which, in retrospect, were surprisingly morbid. They weren't warm, fuzzy kinds of fairytales. They weren't as bad as Grimm (no chopped off toes) but they were pretty dark. I remember characters dying a lot. I loved them. Oddly enough (or maybe not so odd considering my feelings about anthropomorphic animals, see post), I really hated the Walt Disney Bambi record we had. (And in general, I don't have a problem with Walt Disney.) Actually, I think it may have been the fire at the end. I had a terrible fear of fire when I was a kid.

Anyway, since then I've listened to several different dramatizations of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and numerous dramatizations of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. I recently got A Pocketful of Rye and Gaudy Night out of the library and was seriously disappointing.

The problem with most radio dramatizations, in my experience, is the narration. The scene has to be established of course, but there's the kind of narration that sets the scene and the kind of narration that becomes pretty much a cop-out for the writers. Too many dramatizations simply use a narrator to tell the story with occasional interjections by other characters. This is how the Gaudy Night dramatization was written. Now, it is tremendously difficult to write interesting dialog that doesn't lose people and doesn't sound stilted, but if a dramatization is just narration, why not simply listen to the book? (Which is a performance in its own right.) (The best part of the Gaudy Night production was an interview at the very end with P.D. James and Jill Paton Walsh.)

The Pocketful of Rye was slightly better (both were BBC productions) but somewhat dull. In comparison, the latest Lord of the Rings radio dramatization starring Ian Holm as Frodo is amazing. (There's an earlier one from the 70s or 80s that is horrible so make sure you don't get fobbed off with it.) The Ian Holm's LTR has got great writers, great actors (many of whom have done books-on-tape--pinpointing voice cameos is almost as much fun as spotting visual cameos), great music. The beginning is a bit slow and a bit talky but by the time they hit the second CD, they are going strong. The dialog is allowed to carry the story. It gets enormously confusing in the middle, with all the wars, but there's this awesome Viking-type music going on that makes up for it.

Basically, I'm willing to take confusion over heavy-duty narration when it comes to dramatizations. This brings us to more of less the same topic I've been hammering away at for awhile (and, actually, brings us to a much bigger topic that I will leave for another day): the nature of mediums and doing things right within each medium. Both Gaudy Night and Pocketful of Rye were trying too hard to give the reader the same experience they would have gotten from reading the books, which is impossible. The result was a very episodic dramatization in which every scene of the book was referred to, with the occasional exchange of dialog to highlight it. But that isn't a dramatization; that's, well, a narration with highlights. Ironically enough, Agatha Christie understood the need to alter texts between mediums better than anyone so that her version of, say, The Hollow varies between the novel and the play. She would combine characters, cut red herrings, change the love interest, anything that would make a story more playable. She altered the endings of both Ten Little Indians and Murder for the Prosecution when she turned them from novellas into plays. (It's one reason why the recent Charles Osborne novelizations of older Christie plays are so terrible; he took the plays and just stuck on he said/she said tags. His setting descriptions actually sound exactly like stage directions [Christie gave very precise stage directions].) Too bad they couldn't have had Christie write the radio scripts for Pocket & Guady; she would have done a stellar job!

Anyway, here are some good dramatizations:

1. The Sittaford Mystery, Christie, BBC
2. Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, most recent version
3. Murder in Mesopotamia, Christie, BBC
4. Sad Cypress, Christie, BBC (great music here too; 1940s jazzy stuff)
5. Murder Must Advertise, Sayers, an old BBC version which I don't think is available anymore; I found it in a library
6. As Time Goes By (radio version; I've only heard bits and pieces but it's excellent dialog: fast and snappy)

7. There's a Frasier episode where they do a radio dramatization of an old-time mystery; it is absolutely hilarious, one of the funniest sitcom episodes I've ever seen.
8. Cosby does a routine about listening to the "Chicken Heart" episode on the radio when he was a kid: very, very funny, sound effects (made by Cosby) and everything; this is old Cosby, by the way; post-Cosby show Cosby is funny but not as classic.



Anonymous said...

Well i just gotta say I dont particularly like books on tape. I'm sure there are good ones out there, but for me the thing I love about books is being able to paint my own picture of the world in my minds eye, to live with the story. But that can really only be done when you're reading at your own pace and you're engaged in reading it. When you're listining to someone else read it to you, you can get that picture but its just not as good as if you read it yourself, and listining to one can sometimes feel like a chore sometimes if either the reader is slow/bad or something like that.
So yea theres my view, for better or worse... ^.^


Kate Woodbury said...

Oh, I agree, the experience of reading and of listening are completely different. I never listen to books I haven't read before. (I just got out the amazing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on TWENTY-SIX CDS--very exciting). And I demand fast readers. (I love Patrick Tull, for instance, but he is too slow.) In any case, I prefer to immerse myself in a book the first time around, and I don't like having to rely on someone else to get me to the end.

When you're listening, you experience a different relationship to the story. I can remember the first time I really started listening to audio books, and I found I could hear the structure. It was a much more analytical, much more performance-oriented experience. The audio book was a mystery, and I was aware, in a way I never am when I'm in the midst of reading a story, of how all the pieces fit together: clues, dialog, set-up, pay-off, character development. It's the reason English Comp professors are always saying, "Read the essay aloud to yourself." Because hearing puts you into a different frame of mind from reading.

Although truth to tell, I don't usually listen to audio books these days for that reason. I mostly just like the performance aspect. I agree: who reads, and how, makes ALL the difference. (A good book by a poor reader is a horrible experience; abridged books are pointless and for some reason, I can't stand audio books read by the author.)