'Lots of Suddenlies': David Wood at the
2012 IBBY Conference Beyond the Book

David Wood is an eminent actor, director and playwright. Dubbed ‘the national children’s dramatist’ by The Times, he has written and directed numerous plays for children. In his entertaining talk he spoke about adapting many very diverse children’s books for the stage: Goodnight Mr Tom (Michelle Magorian), James and the Giant Peach and seven other Roald Dahl novels, Spot’s Birthday Party (Eric Hill), Meg and Mog (Helen Nicoll and Jan Piénkowski), Babe the Sheep Pig (The Sheep Pig, Dick King- Smith), Guess How Much I Love You (Sam McBratney), Tom’s Midnight Garden (Philippa Pearce) and The Tiger who Came to Tea (Judith Kerr) being perhaps the most notable. He has adapted for the big screen too. Wood admitted that he used to think all plays had to be original, and adaptations were second best, but came to the realisation that they too can be ‘a good thing’. Theatre can take good books to a wider audience. Five of his adaptations are being staged around the country this Christmas of 2012, evidence of the huge demand for his work.

Wood has a great sense of responsibility when he adapts a book.[1] His main aim is to be faithful to its spirit, but staging often demands significant changes. The stage version of James and the Giant Peach starts with the scene that comes at the end of the book: James in New York with the insects. In Wood’s version of The BFG (Roald Dahl), unlike in the book, the BFG goes back to Giantland and dream blowing at the end, though he promises the Queen he will come back once a year for Sophie’s birthday. He has had only one complaint, from a child who criticised the changed ending to The Witches (Roald Dahl). But Wood had not changed it. The boy had compared the stage version with the film, and assumed that to have the definitive ending.

Practical necessities rather than high art can dictate. It’s a rare production in which it’s possible to have more than seven or so actors, for example. In Goodnight Mr Tom Wood was allowed more actors than usual, but still had to reduce the number of characters (though his decisions to end the story earlier than in the book and to amalgamate the village and the town were for artistic reasons).

Scale can be an issue, as it was with The BFG. The first half is about one human being (Sophie) and lots of giants, the second about one giant (the BFG) and lots of human beings.

The giants played by actors and Sophie a puppet. From David Wood's adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG. A 'staged' photograph for the press.

 
Wood’s solution? In the first half actors played giants and the human being was a puppet; in the second the giant was a huge puppet and actors played the human beings.

Then there are issues with animal characters. Should they wear clothes? Should they talk? How should narration be done?

Animal characters and use of a narrator in Guess How Much I Love You. Stage adaptation by David Wood.

 
Philippa Pearce took great interest in the adaptation of Tom’s Midnight Garden.[2] She was worried that the time zones could not be done on stage, and about Wood’s idea of using Tom as the narrator. (In Wood’s view, this was the best way to keep Pearce’s wonderful language and to maintain the emotional impact.) But by the time the play was performed Pearce was delighted by Wood’s inventions.

Authors (or their surviving relatives) vary in the extent to which they engage in the processes of adaptation. Wood always likes involvement. Judith Kerr disliked the idea of her tiger miming rather than talking, while Wood felt that way young children would be more immersed. She was happy in the end though.

Judith Kerr with the tiger who came to tea. Stage adaptation by David Wood.

 
Dick King-Smith’s one criticism of Wood’s adaptation of The Sheep Pig was that he used the word ‘rifle’ instead of ‘shotgun’. Dahl’s daughter told Wood that her father would probably have hated Wood’s versions, because he hated anything anyone did with his books, but the family loved them.

Intriguingly, the first step Wood takes when adapting a book for the stage is to work out where the interval should go – he has to find, or fabricate, a cliff-hanger. It’s important to have a climax in the middle of the second act as well, to keep children going to the end.

Brief comparisons between screen and stage versions of The Witches and of Goodnight Mr Tom demonstrated Wood’s contention that it’s easier to be imaginative and theatrical on stage. Television and film demand more reality, for instance in envisaging Tom going through the wall in Tom’s Midnight Garden.

Television version of Tom going through the wall in Tom's Midnight Garden.

 
For Wood, audience engagement and participation are crucial for success. Children should feel they cannot take their eyes from the stage for a moment, in case they miss something. In George’s Marvellous Medicine (Roald Dahl) George asks the audience ‘Shall I do this?’, ‘Should I do that?’. In Spot’s Birthday Party Wood contrived to involve the entire audience in party games. He showed a short video clip of Guess How Much I Love You, where the whole audience did the movements although there was no request for them to do so.

Wood held us all as rapt as his theatre audiences. In a final delightful detail, he explained the background to the title for his talk. Years ago, during a Canadian breakfast television show he was on, a well-known children’s book editor talked about her daughter’s love for a particular book. The reason it gave her such pleasure? ‘Lots of suddenlies’.

Notes:

1 Articles written by David Wood for various journals, magazines and societies are on his website at www.davidwood.org.uk/articles.html. Some of these are extracts from his paper in Theatre for Children and Young People: 50 Years of Professional Theatre in the UK, edited by Stuart Bennett, London: Aurora Metro, 2005. See also his book with Janet Grant: Theatre for Children: A Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing and Acting, London: Faber & Faber, 1997.
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2 David’s Wood’s 2008 Philippa Pearce Lecture ‘Taking Tom from Page to Stage’ describes his work in adapting Tom’s Midnight Garden for the stage and Philippa Pearce’s involvement. A transcript can be read at www.pearcelecture.com/materials/DWood_TakingTom.pdf.
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