by Michel Faber
A few days ago, watching a TV show, I got tears in my eyes. That doesn't happen very often. For a start, I haven't watched television for many years, and also, it takes a lot to make me cry. My own private sorrows can make me weep, and occasionally a song can penetrate my defences (June Tabor's "A Proper Sort of Gardener" does it to me every time), but when it comes to novels or on-screen narratives, I'm tough to crack. Pathos and poignancy are, to me, tactics and techniques; in my work as a writer, I fetch them from my toolbox and use them as required. Show me a tear-jerking movie, and I'll sit stony-faced, analysing the hell out of it. "Oh yes, this is the bit where they hope people will start sniffling. Not badly done at all, I suppose, for this sort of thing. I'd rate it a 6/10. Maybe even a 7." Yet a few days ago, sitting in front of the TV, I got choked up.
Does it change anything if I tell you that the TV drama which moved me was an adaptation of my own novel The Crimson Petal and the White? My wife and I watched it on a home-made DVD that was posted to us by the film-makers. It was episode four, the final instalment. We'd seen episodes one to three some weeks before, fresh from the cutting room. All four discs captured the production in an almost-but-not-quite-finished state, with missing voiceovers and the odd "note to self" jotted in subtitles, reminding boffins and dubbers to fix this or that. But the crucial things – the script, the acting, the direction, the cinematography – were all there. I was hugely impressed.
Parental pride at seeing "my baby" up there? I don't think so. The mere fact of my novel being filmed means very little to me. For a long while after The Crimson Petal's publication in 2002, it looked as though Hollywood was going to adapt it. The production team responsible for the Spider-Man franchise had bought the option, and rumours abounded that Kirsten Dunst would play my heroine Sugar. I could not have been less interested. Receiving updates on it from my publishers was like receiving news about a fashion expo in Taiwan. Who cares? The producer emailed me, asking me a trivial question about the Victorian era which I interpreted as a feeler to test whether I might get involved in some capacity. Mindful that Hollywood has a long history of wasting authors' time, flattering them into writing screenplays which then get rewritten by half a dozen hacks, I responded with polite standoffishness. The project never got off the ground.
But listen: I want to tell you a story. Imagine a girl who's been abused all her life, firstly by her mother and then by everyone else she meets. By the time she's 19, she's already been a prostitute for years. But she's smart. Very smart. One of her clients falls in love with her (or does he?) and puts her intelligence to good use helping him run his business. Lots of other stuff happens – it's a long story and I don't have much space to tell it – but after a while, this prostitute finds herself looking after a six-year-old child. Mothering her, if you like. But we all know that the cycle of abuse is vicious. Will she poison the soul of this little girl, the way her own mother poisoned hers? Last week, I watched this drama being acted out on TV. I saw a young woman embracing a child and I could tell, looking into that young woman's eyes, that she would sooner kill herself than harm that child. And my own eyes prickled.
The publicity surrounding the TV series of The Crimson Petal (BBC2 on Wednesdays) has focused, unsurprisingly, on the filth and the sex. The usual gallery of pundits has regurgitated the usual British squeamishness about bodily functions. Happily, there has also been praise for the actors – Chris O'Dowd's William Rackham blowing away any misconception of O'Dowd as "merely" a comic actor, Gillian Anderson's Mrs Castaway gleefully corroding any residual memory of the X-Files babe, Amanda Hale's Agnes giving you the creeps while stealing your sympathy. As Sugar, Romola Garai dons period costume yet again, lulling viewers into thinking they're in for another serving of Victorian nostalgia; instead, Garai takes them somewhere else entirely – into the psyche of a frighteningly damaged female, and on a journey that ends not in the boudoir but in the nursery. Scriptwriter Lucinda Coxon, in cutting the 850-page narrative down to filmable size, has wisely decided that at heart, it's about parental nurture or the lack of it – about grownups who are really overgrown children in search of lost or absent mothers, and the children that they in turn produce. I had feared that any film or TV adaptation of The Crimson Petal would discard this theme as uninteresting, and instead generate the drama from Sugar's rise through society: the ruthless, beautiful courtesan who claws her way to the top. Maybe that's the drama most people would have preferred to see. Maybe the risks that Coxon and director Marc Munden have taken, in creating something that's so different from the norm, will lose them their audience. I hope not.
When answering questions, over the years, about film and TV adaptations of my books, I have always maintained that no movie or TV series could ever change or damage my work. The Crimson Petal and the White is a book, and it will win or lose the trust of each reader when they begin reading its pages. That relationship will go on. But, to my surprise, I've just seen something on TV that I feel has its own artistic integrity and its own emotional power. It's someone else's baby, but damn it, I care how it gets treated.