Reading the book after watching the adaptation

All Creatures Great and Small topped WTTW’s viewers poll this year. No surprise there. Everyone I know who watched the series loved it. We’re looking forward to two more seasons on Masterpiece — it has been renewed through 2024 — and maybe more. 

The series is the latest adaptation of James Herriot’s eight books about his life as a British veterinarian in Yorkshire starting in 1937.

I hadn’t read any of the books until season 2 concluded on WTTW a few weeks ago. As I get into the book also titled All Creatures Great and Small, I’m thinking that watching a film or television adaptation before reading the source has merit. 

When a beloved book is adapted for film or television, a fan inevitably looks for what was changed, and changes had better pass inspection. Culture critic Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times, a fan of Herriot’s books, wrote about feeling outraged that the television series had manipulated incidents and altered personalities. 

Reading the source after the TV adaptation had acquainted me with the characters and setting, I’m inclined to find differences in the televised All Creatures Great and Small interesting rather than objectionable. Siegfried (Herriot’s employer) is perhaps more imperious, Tristan (Siegfried’s brother) more vulnerable, than in the book, but they’re still engaging. Mrs. Hall (the housekeeper) and Helen (Herriot’s love interest) are more fleshed out, with histories and issues of their own, a welcome addition to a male-focused storyline. 

The Masterpiece series is faithful to the tone and values of the original — celebrating the Yorkshire landscape, the hardworking farmers, and the human-animal bond — so a few changes are excusable, particularly when they make the story more appealing to modern audiences. That’s likely why Helen’s and Mrs. Hall’s roles were expanded. 

An adaptation does a service to literature when it entices us to pick up a book we haven’t read. All Creatures Great and Small sat unopened in a bookcase for years until I was hooked on the television series. I’m impressed by how well Herriot wrote (dare I say for a veterinarian?). I don’t expect to go on to his other seven books, however. His words are not adding to the enjoyment I already receive from the screen version. 

You can find a lot of discussion online about books and their adaptation. Most bloggers favor reading the book for its depth before seeing an adaptation. Often we don’t have a choice; we’ve already read the book when the adaptation arrives. One blogger argued that it doesn’t matter which goes first because an adaptation and its source shouldn’t be compared — each should be judged on its own merits. That seems hard to do if one is enamored of a book, although McNamara wrote that it was only when she stopped comparing that she was able to enjoy the televised All Creatures Great and Small.

I’ll have a chance to try out the advice in May when I see To Kill a Mockingbird at the Nederlander Theatre. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is probably my favorite book. It was set in the same era, the 1930s, as All Creatures Great and Small, and some updating may be justified. The message of the story, however, would seem to require that Scout, Atticus, Jem, Dill, and Boo remain essentially as Lee created them. 

*****

I NEED MORE CONFIDENCE IN MY CRITICAL JUDGMENT

Eight highly recommended. Five recommended. Set against theatreinchicago.com’s collection of positive reviews of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, I faulted my judgment. Mary Zimmerman’s much-lauded play bored me, but, as I said to a friend, “Everyone loves it. It must be me.”

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which ended at the Goodman Theatre Sunday, is a reprise of the Goodman’s 1993 production that secured Zimmerman’s reputation for originality. The show is a series of vignettes with eight actors, each of whom plays da Vinci and other roles, using movement and props to enact the multidimensional genius’s ideas.

It was reassuring to find a New York Times critic’s negative review of the show he saw in New York. Bruce Weber acknowledged Zimmerman’s ingenuity but thought it was employed more in service to self-admiration than to da Vinci. He thought the connection between da Vinci’s words and the staging sometimes vague. The action doesn’t build up to anything; the show could end anytime. Weber was “bothered and bewildered” and “impatient” and “grew bored.”

“Agree,” I thought about each criticism. Then I went back to theatreinchicago.com and read the reviews instead of only noting how many were three- and four-star. A few critics had found faults even though they recommended the show. “It’s a feast for the eyes, but a superficial take on a subject of infinite depth,” said Casey Sullivan in the Sun-Times. “[M]uch of this show seems pointless and tiresome,” said the most critical reviewer, Julia W. Rath of Around the Town Chicago.

It’s a shame that I didn’t have confidence in my reactions until I found reviews to back them up. 

Responses to any work of art are subjective, but I overlook that fact when critics appear to be lined up on one side. My critical facility isn’t as well trained as a professional reviewer’s, but distrusting it won’t make it better.

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