The Guardian view on literary adaptations: an old wheeze that works

·3-min read

While many UK theatres are struggling to woo their audiences back following the pandemic’s impact and amid the cost of living crisis, two upcoming shows have secured West End transfers before the original productions have even opened. Both are adaptations of bestselling novels.

Hamnet, based on Maggie O’Farrell’s reimagination of Shakespeare’s life from the vantage point of the wife he left behind, will move on to London’s Garrick theatre after selling out at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it opens next week. A Little Life, from Hanya Yanagihara’s New York-set trauma tale, will scale up in July from the 800-seater Harold Pinter theatre where it opens on Saturday, to the 1,150-seater Savoy.

The Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s production of A Little Life is more or less a known quantity: a four-hour version, in Dutch, was performed at last year’s Edinburgh festival, though the new version is half an hour shorter and in English. Hamnet, however, has sold out its run at the Swan still unseen. This is a coup that will raise weak cheers at the National Theatre, which recently announced a reduction in its output for the next four years due to financial challenges, including a 21% fall in its audiences since 2019.

Literary adaptations often turn out to be bankers on both stage and screen: they have the benefit of name recognition and established fanbases. Eyes might roll at yet another TV serialisation of Great Expectations, but experience has taught target-driven commissioners that it’s hard to go wrong with Dickens. Some – like another extended West End hit, To Kill a Mockingbird – have the advantage of featuring on school syllabuses.

As a Shakespearean story that is being delivered by the RSC at the playwright’s birthplace, Hamnet has hit a particular mark: it is an intelligent and timely reckoning with theatre’s own history, accreted through generations of scholarship. As well as exploring the impact of his son’s death, at the age of 11, on the tragedy he would premiere a few years later – Hamlet – it reclaims Anne Hathaway from the apparent ignominy of being bequeathed only her husband’s second-best bed, by looking behind the recurring motifs of herbs and birds in his plays.

The popularity of A Little Life might seem less predictable, given the relentlessness of the assaults on the doomed lawyer Jude, which have led some to dismiss the novel as “torture porn” even as others venerate it. Though over a million copies of the book have been sold, a script for a 12-part TV adaptation was squeamishly rejected by multiple TV networks and production companies.

But one has only to look at the mutilations inflicted in Medea or Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, both also currently holding the London stage, to realise that part of the role of theatre has been to confront societies with their worst demons. In dealing with the death of a beloved child, and a young man’s inability to overcome the trauma of childhood abuse, Hamnet and A Little Life have more in common than simply being literary adaptations.