Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Wraysford in the BBC's 2012 adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong.
I’d always wanted to read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, but passed over it time and time again perusing bookstores for my next read. But when I stumbled across it in one of my local charity opshops one day over summer, I bought it. Now, buying a book before I’ve read it rarely happens, but in this case I have no regrets. From page one I was enthralled. I took it everywhere. Beach, pool and car, it was my constant companion. But when I reached the last page, I was left feeling bereft. It couldn’t be finished. So, after a little searching I discovered the BBC had adapted the novel to screen in a two-part TV serial. I raced down to JBHIFI and ordered a copy and after an anxious wait of a few days was finally able to watch it.
Birdsong tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman whose life course is changed dramatically when he falls in love with Isabelle Azaire, a married woman in Amiens, France, who lives under the controlling and abusive thumb of her husband. However, the views of society and Isabelle’s subsequent fears consume her, so she runs home to Azaire and the relationship between her and Wraysford ultimately ends. Lost without Isabelle, Wraysford finds himself fighting on the Western Front during World War I and spends the course of the war with all of its horrors making peace with both his demons and the loss of Isabelle.
However, as with many book-to-screen adaptations, BBC’s Birdsong did not live up to Faulks’ novel. The power and haunting beauty behind the novel just wasn’t there. Sure, the romance between Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne) and Isabelle Azaire (Clemence Posey) was captured and portrayed wonderfully by Redmayne and Posey, but it did not carry the all-consuming and desperate passion of the novel that drove Wraysford and Isabelle to risk everything. The real power of the novel, Wraysford’s time at war, was somehow missing from the serial. Yes, a large part of the two episodes was devoted to this part of the story, but I don’t feel that it paid homage to the exploration of the human spirit that the novel did.
It was a shame that the depth and extent of many of the relationships in the novel were not explored, chiefly that between Isabelle and Wraysford, Wraysford and Jeanne, and Wraysford and Jack. Isabelle and Wraysford’s relationship certainly wasn’t covered like the novel, especially because key elements that fleshed out and ultimately destroyed their relationship were not there. Isabelle’s relationship with a German soldier, who she risks everything for in the novel, was absent, removing the weight of Wraysford’s pain at losing her. The questions, did she ever really love him, as he loved her, were left unanswered. Although Wraysford’s relationship with Jeanne (Marie-Josee Croze) was similar to the novel, the reticence between them could have been stronger. After all, in collusion with her sister Isabelle, a big part of his life was being kept from him. The friendship between Wraysford and ‘tunnel rat’ (engineer) Jack Firebrace (Joseph Mawle) was so much deeper in the novel. It was disappointing to say the least that that wasn’t brought to the screen until the very end it seemed, especially regarding what Jack said there was left to look forward to: to love and be loved. His death wasn’t so profound or meaningful. If not that, Wraysford’s relationship with Weir (Richard Madden), which was central to the novel, could have been delved into deeper.
A major disappointment was that society’s view of the war wasn’t touched on and even then only in a few select letters home from the characters. Society’s view of the war, both during and in the aftermath – that distance on the homefront and expectation that every soldier would return to complete normality after what they’d seen and experienced – which was perhaps for me the most powerful revelation in the novel, was the missing piece. The echoes of Sigfrid Sassoon and Wilfred Owen that Faulks carried in his novel just weren’t there in the BBC adaptation.
However, the TV adaptation was not wholly disappointing.
The war scenes, which dominated much of the narrative, were gritty and graphic, if not a little tame, but not as visually dynamic as HBO’s The Pacific. You truly understood Wraysford’s desperation to escape the battlefield and his burden as an officer. The relationship between those in positions of power and the soldiers was nicely explored through both Weir and Wraysford’s relationship with Jack and their journey from one of contempt, distance and disdain for each other to comradeship and friendship. On the whole it was great to see the most powerful and haunting aspect of the novel visualised brought to the screen.
I’m glad that they left out the chapters of Wraysford’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, out of the program. To me, it never really felt too relevant or central to the novel other than a chance for the audience to learn more about Wraysford’s life after the war. The only way I could see it as relevant was how the sacrifices made impacted the freedoms of future generations and how profound the symbol of new life, rebirth and second chances was because of Elizabeth, although this wasn’t particularly fleshed out by Faulks.
Eddie Redmayne captured the character of Wraysford beautifully, particularly his breakdown in the war. His desperation to escape the horrors of the battlefield and what ultimately he felt was a pointless existence after losing Isabelle were wonderfully captured and portrayed by Redmayne. What Redmayne carried just as well as Faulks novel was Wraysford’s disdain of the war and his desire for it to end, which came through the evolution of his relationship with his men, but more importantly the engineers, from one of contempt to mutual respect. Redmayne also did well to capture Wraysford’s time before the war with Isabelle in Amiens, as you understood his passion and eventual love for Isabelle, which was o integral to his journey in the novel.
Overall, the BBC’s adaptation was a just capturing of Faulks’ story and is still well worth a watch.