I happened to pick up the paperback of Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil last week from HMV for the scandalously low price of £2, and was therefore rather interested to listen to a new Radio 4 Extra production of it, my only previous experience with the story being the 1978 film version starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier. That film is not exactly an all-time classic and in all honesty is probably merely average as a thriller, but I remember being wowed by the shocking, bold high concept at the heart of it and the chilling realism of how that idea is then followed through by the antagonists.
Unfortunately most of that was lost in this audio production, an abridged reading by the actor Alex Jennings. Jennings is one of those people who by rights should be a far bigger star, but in lieu of that has done much radio and audiobook work. He is certainly the best thing about this version, giving a good, solid performance and coping with the different voices of the characters without much trouble – and given that a particular denouement depends on someone recognising particular vocal intonations, authentic voices here are essential.
Unfortunately the book simply defeats the abridgement. Whereas the film is two hours long – and the unabridged audiobook is eight an a half hours long – this tries to get the job done in around 75 minutes and it just doesn’t work. The story is left choppy and incoherent, jumping all over the place and forced to leave out key moments that establish the realism, suspense and threat of the story while consistently throwing away its key shocks by underplaying. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the story itself (and I hadn’t read the book I’d just purchased prior to listening and last saw the film many years ago, so I’m far from an expert) then you’ll be struck by the sudden jumps and omissions throughout. You can sense whole chunks being ripped out as you go, and it combines to leave you feeling rather puzzled for the wrong reasons rather than on the edge of your seat.
The key problem would appear to be that the length of the adaptation is just too short for the source material, which is as much down to the commissioning editors and the nature of the book itself as it is to the ensuing work of the narrator, abridger and production team under the given constraints. It was pretty much seriously compromised before they ever got underway. Still, even given those caveats, I have to admit that I found this whole production rather flat: it’s someone simply reading a book at you and there’s no excitement to it. It certainly lacks the dynamism of full-cast productions (like the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays, or the Paul Temple plays I’ve written about) which are amazingly real and vivid in the mind after you’ve heard them.
You might think that comparing a narrated reading with a full cast play is unfair, a comparison of apples and oranges – and with good reason. Even so, too many audiobook productions are just dull, lifeless affairs. They do a serviceable, mannered job in reading the words but seem disinclined to do anything further to bring the subject matter to life. There are honourable exceptions to the rule, and perhaps unsurprisingly it’s often when they have a younger, more demanding audience in mind: the audio adaptations of the old Doctor Who Target novels for example – such as the current BBC Radio 4 Extra airing of “The Giant Robot” – make effective use of not just their narrator but also of minimal sound effects and music cues that instantly make them more immersive experiences. Plus of course this one has the inimitable Tom Baker: his voice might be too richly distinctive to create as believable an array of different characters as Jennings can, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s Tom Baker, after all – the Doctor!
Otherwise I’ve come to rather avoid audio ‘readings’ because they simply don’t work for me, which is a shame. They can be made effectively after all, as I pointed out last year with my review of At The Mountains of Madness, an abridged reading of an HP Lovecraft story, an author of whom I’m not exactly a fan. The whole thing should have been a complete no-no for me and yet I absolutely loved the end result, which managed to convert an ordinary audiobook reading into something as powerfully vivid and atmospheric as any full-cast audio play I’d heard thanks to a seamless bit of abridgement, a few intelligent production tricks and the application of a truckload of imagination.
The same team that produced At The Mountains of Madness is behind next week’s BBC Radio 4 Extra première, Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth (6.30pm weekdays from Monday, October 3) and it will be fascinating to find out whether they can achieve the same feat a second time around. I guess I’ll be reporting back next week on whether they did.