Thursday 8 December 2016

TP's Woolf man: a classic screen adaptation

Published 19/02/2011 | 05:00

The Cavan-born actor TP McKenna, who died this week at the age of 81, was one of the first people I interviewed as a young journalist and I recall finding him bracingly forthright and irascible in his opinions.

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He was a very fine stage actor, especially in O'Casey, but I mention him here because, among his myriad television performances, he had a significant role -- that of a faded old poet -- in a 1983 BBC adaptation of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, one of the finest screen versions of a classic novel that I've ever seen.

It's funny how few there have been. Most adaptations of Jane Austen, whether for the small or big screen, have totally missed her poise and irony, though Roger Michell's 1995 version of Persuasion, starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, brilliantly distilled the book's essence into less than two hours, and I've a lingering fondness for the Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice.

Mostly, though, screen adaptations of great novels are either travesties or dutifully dull -- none more so than the 1970s film of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which was doggedly reverential and woefully miscast.

However, there have been some superb screen versions of outstanding novels, some of which have adhered closely to the book, and some playing fast and loose with the plot.

My favourites among the former include Visconti's film of Lampedusa's The Leopard, Jack Clayton's The Innocents (based on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw), Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird, Stephen Frears's take on Roddy Doyle's The Snapper, and Peter Yates's excellent (and very underrated) version of George V Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

And among the latter are Frank Perry's surreal re-imagining of John Cheever's short story The Swimmer, and Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, which took Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch and altered its heroine's skin colour. When Tarantino told Leonard of his proposed changes, the Detroit author merely shrugged: "My book, your movie."

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