Written in 1993 by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is considered a classic of modern English literature. It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a troubled young man who falls deeply in love with a married Frenchwoman named Isabelle Azaire in 1910. The book follows Wraysford into the trenches during World War I, and through his eyes the reader experiences some of the major battles fought on the Western Front. Millions of copies of Birdsong have been sold worldwide and it is regularly voted one of Britain’s favorite novels. It is considered so significant, in fact, that it is required reading in British schools.
All that being said, I’ve tried picking the book up twice, and have twice failed to finish it. It’s a tough read. I breezed through Part I, the portion focusing on the love/lust relationship that develops between Stephen and Isabelle. But at the beginning of Part II I was suddenly plunged 45 feet below No Man’s Land into a claustrophobic earthen tunnel with Jack Firebrace, a completely new character that had nothing to do with Part I. The stark contrast between a forbidden love affair in the lush Amiens countryside and the gritty, depressing conditions of the Great War was a very jarring adjustment. I put the book down again, time passed, and it went back on the shelf.
Then last night the first of the two-part miniseries based on the book aired on PBS. I tuned in because I was curious how Birdsong would adapt to the screen. After all, it’s taken Working Title 13 years to get it there since buying the film rights to the book. And I have to say, I was very impressed. Unlike the novel, which progresses in chronological order, this adaptation chose to intersperse the pre-war love story scenes as flashbacks Stephen Wraysford has during the war. The film weaves between the light and the dark, contrasting the young Wraysford and the hardened soldier he turns out to be, leaving the viewer wondering what caused such a transformation in his character. In the book we already know by the end of Part I, but the series lets the two stories play out simultaneously, so the viewer is left guessing what happens both in the past and present.
The cinematography is beautiful, the actors’ performances solid (Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Wraysford while Clemence Poesy plays Isabelle Azaire), and the war scenes bring the bitter reality of the First World War home (a much grittier portrayal than what you’ll find on Downton Abbey). I look forward to seeing how it wraps up next week. This adaptation inspired me to take the book off the shelf. Maybe the third try’s the charm.
Be sure to check out this interesting article about the filming (and why it took 13 years to get it on the screen).
See my thoughts on Part II here.