Parade’s End, the 1920’s tetralogy by Ford Madox Ford, has enjoyed a recent resurgence thanks to Tom Stoppard’s stunning adaptation for the BBC. Internet book seller – abe books – record that since this series aired, Parade’s End has commandeered the second position on their bestseller list. Whenever a book is adapted to the screen, the perpetual debate as to whether it is ‘true to the book,’ whether it ‘ought to be true to the book,’ flares up once again. Depending upon their answer to these questions, the writer and director assume either the role of translator, interpreter, or creator. One thing is for certain though: in the daunting task of adaptation, one enters into conversation with the original text, with the phantasmal figure of the author. To adapt, one must collaborate.
Happily, critics of Stoppard’s Parade’s End have congratulated this sensitive, yet innovative visualisation of Ford’s great work. In the opening lines of a review in the The Independent, Grace Dent declares it to be ‘one of the finest things the BBC has ever made,’ insisting in the same breath that we ought ‘shower it with Baftas and Emmys.’ Stoppard and the director, Susanna White, weave the modernist aesthetics of the novel – the fragmented perspectives, the anachronic time frame, the critical unspoken undercurrents – into their cinematographic tapestry. The kaleidoscopic lens they often employ effects something of Ford’s literary cubism. And Stoppard’s intricate and rapid paced narrative is true to Ford’s own lack of deference to his reader; both demand that the receiver of this art works to comprehend the picture being drawn. The BBC’s Parade’s End, then, has been a successful collaboration: between screenwriter and director, cast and crew, and, most significantly, the page and the screen.
Ford was no stranger to the difficulties involved in the production of collaborative art. In his memoir of Joseph Conrad, Ford recalls that the two authors, upon recognising that their collaboration may bring them further renown and much required commercial success, decided to write popular fiction together. The tale of their first co-authored publication – The Inheritors in 1901 – illustrates the antagonisms inherent to such an endeavour. Ford’s recollection is far from fond: ‘We took up the Inheritors, a queer, thin book which the writer [Ford] has always regarded with intense dislike.’ From the moment the last word was committed to paper, he regarded the novel with ‘hatred and dread,’ declaring it to have ‘nothing to do with literature.’ Conversely, ‘Conrad had none of these feelings apparently.’ Conrad’s reaction to the admittedly ephemeral novel suited Ford, in this instance, wonderfully. In his words, it allowed him to ‘shift the burden of proof correcting – which Conrad rather liked – on to his collaborator’s shoulders and from that day to this has never looked at the book.’ The gulf in their regard for the book was broadened further when, much to Ford’s horror, the supposedly forgotten book unexpectedly resurfaced in three new editions. Even more surprising to Ford was Conrad’s reaction to this republication: ‘Why not?’ Conrad said, ‘Why not republish it? It’s a good book, isn’t it? It’s a damn good book!’. Ford reports with great relief that in one edition of Collected Works of Joseph Conrad, the novel is attributed to Conrad alone.
Collaboration is undoubtedly a hazy process. In the case of Conrad and Ford, records of “who wrote what” are worryingly contradictory; the authors themselves both claim and deny the same chapters and lines. Their opinions of the novels are utterly and irreconcilably polarised: embarrassment for Ford, and pride for Conrad. In what may be an attempt to defend, or perhaps simply comprehend, Conrad’s assertion of the questionable book as ‘damn good’ Ford declares that ‘he prefers to believe that Conrad never read the last chapter of the Inheritors.’ So though The Inheritors was actively claimed by Conrad, and attributed to him alone by his publishers, Ford believes he didn’t even read the last chapter, let alone write it! This, then, is perhaps an illustration of the obscure and muddled side of artistic collaboration, whereas Stoppard’s Parade’s End and its revitalisation of its literary counterpart is assuredly the luminous side.