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Books-Into-Film Commentary – Birdsong (Part One) April 25, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Birdsong, books, books compared to film, books compared to television, films based on books, historical fiction, movies based on books, Sebastian Faulks, television based on books, television commentary, World War I.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Birdsong is Sebastian Faulks’ novel set during World War I. It is being offered as a two-part mini-series on “Masterpiece Theatre.” This struck me as an obvious opportunity for another “Books-into-Movies/Books-into-Film/Books-into-Television” post(s) here at my blog. With this post, I’ll address Part One, broadcast locally for me in southern California the evening of April 22nd. I’ll post on Part Two in a week, and offer a synopsis of the novel in that second post.

The basic tone and shape of the novel Birdsong is still recognizable in the miniseries “Birdsong,” but the story is presented with major conceptual adjustments, leading to many divergences between the book and the miniseries, at least at the halfway point. The two big conceptual changes?

  • The focus of the miniseries has been entirely on Part One, set in 1910, and Part Two set in 1916. These two parts make up just under half of the novel Birdsong, a seven part novel. And we are not near to the resolution points of Part One and Part Two of the novel. There has been no hint at all that the miniseries will include the 1970s parts of the novel involving Stephen Wraysford’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson.
  • The miniseries moves back and forth constantly between 1910 and 1916. The novel tells the 1910 story in an unbroken flow, then moves on to 1916 after the resolution of the events of 1910. Faulks uses flash-forward/flashbacks, but this is after much longer story sections, and runs between the 1910s and the 1970s.

These divergences allow the filmmakers to build the Part One/1910 and Part Two/1916 stories in parallel, simultaneously taking us to cliffhanger points in both stories at the end of Part One of the miniseries. We have Stephen Wraysford taking René Azaire’s wife away from him in 1910, with all the uncertainty that implies. And we have Stephen Wraysford found among corpses in 1916.

The filmmakers’ choice to approach the story this way has led to many discrepancies between the novel and the miniseries, some dictated by the changes in approach, and some changes less essential, selected for other aesthetic/creative reasons. Here is a list of observations of where the novel has been followed, and where it has not been followed:

  • The tunneling under enemy lines, under the trenches, is a key element of the novel Birdsong (as it is in the miniseries).
  • The novel starts in 1910. The miniseries starts with the quick look at World War I in 1916, then flashes back and forth from there.
  • Bérard’s obnoxious singing is directly from the book.
  • Stephen Wraysford hearing crying or pleading and walking to investigate, then hiding when René Azaire emerges from his bedroom and asks that if anyone is there, is directly from the book. Stephen also confronts Isabelle Azaire about what he has heard, and she shuts down his inquiry, asking him to respect her position.
  • The book depicts a lot more of the activities at the René Azaire textile production facility, including the issues of the labor strife.
  • Stephen Wraysford does see Isabel Azaire delivering food to children of laborers as in the book (and she offers Stephen her explanation).
  • The way Stephen and Isabelle come together is different in the book. Stephen gets involved in an altercation as a result of the labor unrest. He injures his hand. René Azaire suggests he stay away from the production facility, at the Azaire home, for a week. Stephen himself has become an issue for Azaire’s labor force, because he is from England. During that period, Stephen and Isabelle become intimate.
  • Stephen Wraysford uses cards, and rat guts, to predict the future of fellow soldiers in the novel.
  • Jeanne, Isabelle’s older sister, does not appear until later in the novel. She is mentioned early in the narrative, but does not participate in any 1910 scenes. There is no scene in the novel where Stephen mistakes Jeanne for Isabelle at the piano.
  • Stephen Wraysford is wounded during action in a tunnel, and mistaken for dead. He is put with the corpses, but this is not interspersed with scenes of Isabelle leaving René in the novel as it is in the miniseries.
  • Isabelle is more circumspect and careful in the novel, with elaborate precautions to hide their affair from everyone. Lisette does discover the affair, and does ask Stephen to do the same things with her that he’s doing with Isabelle, as in the miniseries. But Lisette’s discovery of the affair seems less likely in the book, and more surprising, with all the precautions taken by Isabelle.
  • And, Lisette’s actions do not trigger the breakup. The breakup in the novel occurs after the labor dispute is resolved, and René confronts Isabelle about rumors of her taking food to the families of workers—and rumors she has had an affair with one of the labor leaders. She admits to an affair—with Stephen.
  • “Forgive me,” followed by “I do forgive you as I ask you to forgive me” is directly from the novel. Stephen and Isabelle leave, as they are preparing to do at the end of Part One of the miniseries.


So Part One of the miniseries “Birdsong” leaves us with a double cliffhanger, at key dramatic points in Part One/1910 and Part Two/1916 of the novel. At this point, it does not appear to me the miniseries will address the 1970s storyline from the novel at all. There is still a significant amount of story in both Part One and Part Two, as well as in the rest of Birdsong. It will be interesting to see what the filmmakers choose to dramatize, and what they choose to leave out. It is clear to me they will have to leave out something.

At the end of my post next week, I will offer a synopsis of the novel, and readers of these blog posts have another way to compare the basic storyline of the book with the basic storyline of the miniseries. However, even that synopsis leaves out much of the detail in the novel, and at this point, the novel would still offer people interested in this story some surprises even if they have seen the miniseries. So we will pick up with Stephen on the run with Isabelle in 1910, and Stephen emerging from the dead in 1916, next week.


1. Daphne - April 25, 2012

I happened on this the other night on my local PBS station as well. I had never heard of it before (and didn’t realize it was actually a book until the end when a reference to it was made). I enjoyed the story and plan on watching the rest of it. Maybe I”ll pick up the book someday…

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