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I first read Birdsong when I was in my mid-twenties.  I thought then it was powerful, serious and (I cringe) erotic.  I read it again last year, as part of my university course.  I found it plodding, pretentious and the sex scenes squirmingly badly written.  Faulks is signalling to his readers that this is Serious Literature, but a closer reading shows overlong sentences, florid imagery and descriptive passages that could be cut back to a couple of sentences.  When I was younger and not so widely read, I thought overwriting meant real writing.  The Road by Cormac McCarthy proved to me that is never true.

On rereading, I still found the sections of the novel set in the tunnels to be the best, Faulks strips his prose back and manages to capture the terror of being in a space little bigger than a man’s horizontal body, tens of feet underground, fearing explosions or discovery by German soldiers.  He writes of the stench, the smell of blood, urine, sweat and dirt, the lack of light and air and the constant claustrophobic horror of dying underground.  It it compelling and uncomfortable reading.

The television version both improved upon and lost something of the book’s storytelling.  Abi Morgan (is there anything she isn’t writing at the moment?) takes away the redundant and unconvincing section in the 70s, and transforms the entire heavy tome into a screenplay that is surprisingly light on dialogue.  The love story therefore becomes more believable, more natural and carnal and free.  It is telescoped, of course, but that improves the book ponderousness.   The first part of the adaptation seemed a huge improvement on the book.  The second part however, focussing more on the final stages of the war and Stephen’s time underground, lost the intensity of the book.  The reader’s imagination will create the particular hell of those tiny, squalid tunnels, and a television version (or perhaps this version) cannot create the same experience.  The make-up department seemed unwilling to add any significant disfigurement to either Clemence Poesy or Eddie Redmayne, so this soldier seemed to make it out of the underground tunnels looking like an upset and slightly grubby Burberry model.  In the book, we have a sense of the physical degradation of a man trapped underground for several days.  In the book it takes Stephen several backbreaking and soul-destroying days to make it out of the tunnel, and after having made a promise, he drags Jack Firebrace on his back, bent double or crawling. Even when he knows the man is dead, he will not leave his fellow soldier underground.  At this point, the novel is almost unbearably moving.  The television version didn’t really come close.

The television version gave the story pace and energy, a lightness of touch when needed, and even moments of humour.  Poesy is very good and Redmayne is terrific, his is a very pretty face but he registers very subtle changes of emotion with his eyes.  He conveys the youthful lust of the earlier sections as well as  the dead-eyed trauma of the wartime sections.  It is just a shame that the book’s strongest section was telescoped and anaesthetised, the horror muted and the power diminished.

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