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Books-Into-Film Commentary – Birdsong (Part Two) May 2, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Birdsong, book synopsis, 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.)

This is part of two of my “Books-into-Film/Books-into-Television” post on “Birdsong,” based on the Sebastian Faulks novel, Birdsong(Part One was posted a week ago.) My comments here will address events from the second half of the production, and end with a synopsis of the book.

First, as I indicated in my post on Part One, the basic story of the novel, and the mood of the novel, are present. The two big conceptual changes I mentioned in my first post remain:

  • The television production focuses on the events of World War I period. The storyline set during the 1970s and involving Stephen Wraysford’s granddaughter Elizabeth Benson is not depicted at all.
  • The television production flashes back and forth constantly between Stephen’s experiences during World War I and his relationship with Isabelle. In the book, we do shift from period to period, but with much longer story sections between shifts. 

I’ll add to this a third larger conceptual variation between the book and the television production—Isabelle’s post Stephen-relationship story is seriously reduced and simplified. In the book, after the war begins (well after she leaves Stephen) she starts a relationship with a German officer during the German occupation of Amiens, and ends up moving to Germany with him (and with Stephen’s and her daughter). When Isabelle dies in the influenza epidemic just after the war, the German officer sends back Isabelle’s daughter to Jeanne, who marries Stephen. Another part of this is Stephen and Jeanne coming together, before the end of World War I, before Stephen’s final experiences in the tunnels. They get married, move to England, and raise Isabelle’s and Stephen’s daughter as their own. In the book, we meet a grown Francoise as part of the storyline involving Stephen Wraysford’s granddaughter (and get this story information as part of that storyline).

Other selected observations comparing the book to Part Two of the television production:

  • Stephen Wraysford’s decision to decline the opportunity to leave combat after he survives his time among corpses is directly from the book.
  • Jack Firebrace’s son dying of diphtheria back home is also from the book.
  • Stephen’s leave in Amiens, and his encounter with Jeanne, is from the book. But the story is slightly different. His meeting with Isabelle is slower to develop, and much less emotional. The chemistry between them seems obviously in the past. Also, Isabelle’s disfigurement as depicted in the book seemed to me to be more severe—showing this on-screen might have presented serious makeup challenges.
  • The story of the fate of René Azaire is brushed over in the television version. There is actually a twinge of nobility in the way he leaves the story. (See the synopsis later in this post for details.)
  • The overconfidence of Stephen’s superiors after the pre-assault bombardment, the confidence that the bombardment will have Germans coming out trying to surrender, is directly from the book. In fact, Stephen’s actions during this assault are largely consistent with the story told in the book.
  • There is a scene in the book when a horribly wounded soldier begs Stephen to kill him, as in the television production. In the book, Stephen steps on the poor man, partially buried in a trench, and in even grislier circumstances than in the television production. Stephen also kills the soldier in the book, an apparent act of mercy.
  • The final sequence of events in the tunnels toward the end of the war, when Stephen is at a listening post, is very close to events depicted in the book. Stephen is trapped in the tunnel with Jack Firebrace. In the book, they are trapped for days, with diminishing air pockets and a sense that they are doomed. Jack Firebrace has broken both his legs, and dies in the tunnel before it Stephen gets out—this is also in the book. There is one fairly significant variation. When Stephen sets off the charge in an attempt to break free, he kills some Germans nearby. The brother of one of those Germans helps dig him out. But, as in the television production, the war is virtually over, and the Germans embrace Stephen before letting him return to his own lines. 

“Birdsong” the television two-part miniseries adopts the main tone of the book. The war is the real enemy. The war diminishes Stephen. Contentiousness between enemies, between the English and the Germans, and the French and the Germans, seems minimal compared to the adversity created for the main characters by the war itself. I will add, however, that in the book, Stephen is hostile to Germans in his interior character passages. This finally fades at the end when the Germans rescue him and allow him to return to his unit. I am left to wonder whether or not the people living during that era held such magnanimity toward their enemies.

Birdsong synopsis (prepared before watching the mini-series):

Note: This synopsis summarizes the novel, but does not capture the atmosphere conveyed by Sebastian Faulks, and in the interests of time and space, leaves out all but the key events in the book, and key characters. Readers should NOT consider this to be anything but a reminder of the basic outline of the plot, and should not substitute this synopsis for the experience of reading Birdsong.

Part One – France 1910
Twenty year-old Stephen Wraysford visits France from England to learn the textile business in France. He stays with the Azaire family. They have two childre n, a young boy Gregoire and a sixteen-year-old daughter Lisette. But Stephen is attracted to Madame Isabele Azaire, about ten years older than he is, but considerably younger than Monsieur René Azaire. Madame Azaire is a younger daughter married by her family to Monsieur Azaire after his wife’s untimely death. Her parents are aloof; her older sister Jeanne is the closest to her from her immediate family. The Azaire marriage appears to be passionless, but Madame Azaire seems to accept her role, and offers little obvious encouragement to Stephen that she might return his infatuation, though Stephen suspects she does.

Stephen Wraysford witnesses labor strife, and himself becomes a target of some nationalistic hostility as tensions rise between Monsieur Azaire and his employees as a result of his reductions of compensation for them. Wraysford gets into an altercation with one of the laborers and injures his hand. Monsieur Azaire asks him to stay away from the production facility for a week. While staying at the Azaire house during working hours, Stephen makes his move toward Isabelle. After a little resistance, she gives into her own infatuation with Stephen and they start a passionate affair. We find out that René Azaire is largely impotent and unable to do much sexually with Isabelle. He strikes her out of frustration. (Stephen has heard the sounds of this during his stay.) We also find out Stephen Wraysford is from very humble origins, largely abandoned by his parents, but taken in by a benefactor who sees to his education and helps get him his opportunities. They carry out their affair in secret, using various stealthy schemes to find private time. No one suspects except Lisette, who during a family fishing trip that includes Stephen tells him what she knows and tries to get Stephen to do the same things with her that he does with Isabelle. Lisette has apparently developed feelings for Stephen and is a lot more adult at seventeen than anyone realizes.

The labor dispute finally comes to an end. Monsieur Azaire is pleased, but then confronts his wife with rumors she aided the strikers’ families with food. (Stephen has known about this activity.) She admits this. He then confronts her with the rumor that she has been unfaithful to him with a key labor leader, “little” Lucien Lebrun. Isabelle Azaire admits there has been an affair—with Stephen. Isabelle and Stephen leave the household and move fromAmiensto St.- Rèmy-de-Provence (a long distance away). Stephen gets a job as an assistant to a furniture maker. They live together in what seems to be a quiet tranquility. But Isabelle seems unsettled, maybe feeling guilty about what her actions have done to her family. She corresponds with her sister Jeanne. Her period stops and she believes she is pregnant. She almost loses the baby, but appears to pass through that crisis. At the end of this section, she leaves Stephen. Stephen believes: “She had returned because she felt she could save her soul. She had gone home because she was frightened of the future and felt sure a natural order could yet be resumed.” Stephen does not seem inclined to pursue her.

Part Two – France 1916
Stephen Wraysford serves as a lieutenant in the British army in a unit on the front lines of the trenches of World War I in France. He serves with tunnellers, men experienced with mining who dig tunnels under the trenches attempting to gain advantages on the battlefield. The Germans have their own tunnellers, and the tunnels sometimes cross. The section starts with Jack Firebrace, one of those tunnellers. He falls asleep on sentry duty, and fears he will be shot. He is brought before Wraysford who takes no action. Jack Firebrace is grateful for the reprieve.

We find out Stephen Wraysford has no new information about Isabelle Azaire. He did not decide to pursue her. He describes his loss of her as if “someone had died.” He also describes his move to Paris a year after Isabelle leaves, and his friendship with an eighteen-year-old girl, Mathilde. When the war breaks out, Stephen decides to join the British army to fight alongside Englishmen.

Stephen leads a fight in the tunnels. Stephen gets hit with an explosion that feels as if he has been “hit by a falling house.” His wounds, not severe on their own, result in a fever, and he is placed with corpses, given up for dead. Jack Firebrace spots him in a “row of dumped flesh” and extricates Stephen Wraysford who sees Firebrace and says “get me out.”

Wraysford recovers, and though he is offered the option of going home, he chooses to stay with his unit. Jack Firebrace gets word that his eight year old son back home has died from diphtheria. The Army prepares for a huge offensive against the Germans, an offensive that is supposed to end the war. The commanders are certain a huge bombardment, as well as a tunnel that will be exploded, will end German resistance before the attack. But the Germans seem barely phased, and the exploded tunnel simply opens up another battlefield obstacle. Soldiers are mowed down as the offensive seems nearly suicidal. Stephen Wraysford goes down—“some force had blown down.” He ends up in a shell-hole, then stands to walk again. He sees the German wire ahead that should have been cut by the bombardment but hasn’t been. Wraysford goes through a gap and ends up in an empty trench. Stephen and others who have advanced this far suspect they will be trapped when the counterattack occurs. Stephen kills a wounded soldier he steps on in the trench, after the soldier begs to be put out of his misery. Jack Firebrace looks on in horror at the slaughter, wondering if it can go on. In the confusion of the continued fighting, including grisly events of death and mutilation, Stephen races toward a nearby river and ends up carried by the river’s current. He is surrounded by Germans in the water. Stephen ends up on a bridge, then in “the marshy grass.” He is walking toward German lines when “an impact took his head as though a brick thrown at great speed had struck his temple, and he fell to the ground.” The next face he sees is one of the tunnellers he has been fighting with.

With the guns silent, Stephen hears a low sound of continuous moaning. The sound overcomes Michael Weir, one of the leaders of the tunnellers, and Stephen, with emotion.

Part Three – England 1978
Elizabeth Benson, Stephen Wraysford’s granddaughter (we do not learn this right away) becomes interested in researching her grandfather’s story. Elizabeth works for fashion designers in England. She’s the mistress of a man who lives in France, a man who is supposed to leave his wife but never can find the right time. Elizabeth seems to suspect that deep down he never will, and it appears she likes her independence. But also, Elizabeth is thirty-eight, and feels a strong drive to have children. Elizabeth visits a battle memorial were she’s astounded at how many names are listed who were “the lost, the ones they did not find.” She says “my God, nobody told me.” Elizabeth visits her mother were she finds some of Stephen Wraysford’s papers apparently written in Greek. Her mother seems to have kept only a small part of Wraysford’s papers, and also seems uninterested in them. One of her bosses, Bob, tells her the script is Greek, but the words are not Greek. It appears to be some sort of code. Bob agrees to help Elizabeth unravel the coded papers.

Part Four – France 1917
Stephen Wraysford gets reacquainted with Michael Weir, a commander of the tunneling soldiers. Weir has returned from a strange, emotionless leave with his parents inEngland. Stephen Wraysford and Michael Weir are trapped in a tunnel. Weir is disabled with a broken arm. Wraysford helps get him rescued.

Wraysford gets permission to take leave in Amiens, a city he knows well, a city where Isabelle could be. Wraysford goes with a man named Ellis, but tires of the bars were his fellow servicemen are going. He goes to an out of the way bar and runs into Isabelle’s sister, Jeanne. The contact is awkward at first, with Jeanne not pleased by the reunion and its potential to disrupt her family. Eventually, after contacting Isabelle, Jeanne agrees to take Stephen to meet with his pre-World War I lover. He learns she has given birth to a daughter he fathered. She has been disfigured by a shell. Isabelle had gone back with her husband, René, who took her back, and seemed surprisingly repentant himself as opposed to being angry with her, offering to change his ways. But Isabelle is still not happy going back. When Amiens is occupied by the Germans, René Azaire is taken as a hostage and eventually deported to Germany with other prisoners. German officers of the occupation are described as “punctilious and good-humored.” Isabelle falls in love with one of them, Max. Max is attentive to Isabelle’s daughter. Max is now posted elsewhere, but they maintain their contact, and their feelings for each other. Stephen also finds out out Lisette has married Lucien Lebrun. Stephen is satisfied with the update, content that any relationship with Isabelle is over.

When Wraysford returns from leave, he finds out he will be reassigned to a staff job. Colonel Gray remarks that he has looked into Wraysford’s eyes and has seen a “perfect blankness.” Wraysford has seen the same “great void” in Gray’s eyes.

Stephen and Isabelle’s older sister Jeanne begin a correspondence, and a growing mutual affection, though Stephen’s apparent disillusionment, his emptiness of soul, colors the relationship. Stephen goes on leave to England, but seems disconnected from anything there. And people seem disconnected from him—an incident of Stephen buying shirts implies someone sees the emptiness in him, finds him unsettling, and encourages him to move along. He goes back to France early and visits Jeanne in Amiens.

Stephen leads a reconnaissance raid before his new assignment. After nearly getting cut off by a German counterattack, reinforcements push the Germans back and Stephen is able to withdraw safely. He loses more of the soldiers he is familiar with, including Ellis, the man who had gone on leave with him toAmiens. Stephen writes the letter to Ellis’s family, a task he finds difficult, because he finds the action difficult to describe to non-soldiers. He ends up offering “only formal words of condolence.” Stephen gets word Michael Weir has been killed.  He sees Jeanne. She is “worried by his listlessness.”

Part Five – England 1978-79
Elizabeth’s boss Bob tells her he has still not figured out her grandfather’s notebooks. She tries to find living associates of her grandfather during World War I. She finds Colonel Gray, but he is grouchy about the contact, and offers little of use, just that her grandfather was a “strange man.” She makes contact with another man, Brennan, whom she visits more than once. She gets little real information from, but feels compassion for Brennan’s apparent sacrifice of his life as a result of World War I. Elizabeth’s mother finds twenty more of her grandfather’s notebooks. Elizabeth, preoccupied with research for information about her grandfather, forgets about what she thought of as a casual date with an associate from her work. He ends up making an awkward marriage proposal, which she turns down. Elizabeth then that discovers she’s pregnant. She tells her lover, who reacts tepidly, but says he is happy—for her. Bob, her boss, now has decoded Elizabeth’s grandfather’s notebooks. They offer a detailed journal of his World War I experience. She reads and begins to absorb what her grandfather went through.

Part Six – France 1918
Stephen is set to go back into the lines for another operation. He visits Jeanne before he goes. He finds out Isabelle has moved to Germany to join Max, who has been terribly wounded. It appears she will stay there for good. Jeanne and Stephen become intimate, though Stephen still seems distant, disconnected, disillusioned—and calls out Isabelle’s name as they embrace.

Stephen goes on the operation, another one in a tunnel. They go to a listening post and realize too late there is a German tunnel right near them. As they hear Germans running, Stephen realizes the Germans are about to blow their tunnel. The explosion closes off the tunnel, trapping and burying the men. Stephen is aware of only himself and badly injured Jack Firebrace (two broken legs) as possible survivors. They are trapped in the tunnel for days, trying to find a way out, and more and more certain they will not be able to. Stephen considers using his revolver to end his ordeal more quickly. He finds some explosives and tries to blow a hole in the tunnel to free them. Without knowing it, he kills some Germans in the vicinity. Jack Firebrace dies before rescue, but Stephen is eventually rescued by one of the dead German’s brothers. Though his rescuer knows Stephen was likely responsible for his brother’s death, he makes no issue of it, and the men embrace at Stephen’s rescue. Stephen leaves to join his battalion after helping with a joint grave for Jack Firebrace and his rescuer’s brother. The war ends, but Stephen Wraysford finds that “nothing could check the low exultation of his soul.”

Part Seven – England 1979
Elizabeth’s mother takes her pregnancy well, surprising Elizabeth. After all her mother says, her parents weren’t married either. Elizabeth discovers, almost casually from her mother, that the woman she knew her whole life as “Grand-mère Jeanne” was not her mother’s blood mother. Elizabeth had suspected something was wrong because the age numbers did not tally. Elizabeth’s mother was the daughter of Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire. Jeanne had adopted her and moved to England with Stephen where they married. Isabelle had been killed by the flu epidemic right after the war, and Max was in no position to care for a little girl he was not even related to. The book ends with Elizabeth’s baby coming a few days early, with her giving birth to her new son John—her lover Robert assists with the birth.

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.