Abridge too Far

One thing I do sometimes is to abridge books for Radio 4. It’s a slightly more grown up version of school precis. You just cut down the words. But when you cut a book for Book at Bedtime or Book of the Week, it’s slashing the entire thing from about 70,000 to 11,000 to fit into five episodes. The very first one I did was Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes. It was easy to abridge because the hero keeps wandering off on philosophical musings as to the nature of man and ape. ‘Yeah Yeah’ I’d mutter, slashing page after page of rambling ape thoughts, anxious to get back to gorillas chasing the hero round the field. I’ve learned that the better written a book, the harder it is to abridge because there’s so little fat on it.

This time I was abridging a new thriller called Perfect Night by Peter Grimsdale who’s married to a close friend. So it would have been very embarrassing if he’d hated what I did to his book. Especially as despite him being allowed ten episodes instead of the usual five, I didn’t do so much a nip and tuck as a full Frankenstein job, slashing, cutting, and restitching; desperately hoping the joins didn’t show. Or the end result wasn’t slow and stumbling with a bolt in the neck. If it had been a crap book, full of blithering and blah, it would have been a piece of piss. But Peter wrote a very tight, pacey narrative and it was a total arse to abridge. I would cut a bit, then realise my decision impacted in about five separate chapters, like ripples in a pond.

Jamie Glover’s reading it, and doing a damn fine job. Imagine reading a story to your kids which goes on and on and on, and you have to do about ten different voices, really subtly. It’s really hard! I listened to him delicately colouring the text and suddenly having to read The Smelly Book to my daughter for the ten millionth time didn’t seem so tough.

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