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Tom Stoppard turns thought into action for 'Parade's End'

The Ford Madox Ford novels are heavy on characters' thoughts. To craft the screenplay, Stoppard looked to history.

February 26, 2013|By Scott Timberg
  • Tom Stoppard crafted the "Parade's End" novels into a screenplay for HBO.
Tom Stoppard crafted the "Parade's End" novels into a… (Matthew Lloyd / For The Times )

Typically, when a writer turns his hand to adapting a long, classic novel for television or film, he comes to terms, early on, with the fact that he'll have to leave out a lot. Playwright Tom Stoppard has been down this road before — working with books by Vladimir Nabokov, Leo Tolstoy, John Le Carré and others.

But he had the opposite dilemma as he drilled into Ford Madox Ford's "Parade's End," a series of four 1920s novels that add up to more than 800 pages for a five-part miniseries that's airing on HBO.

"The problem," Stoppard explains, sitting on the patio outside his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, smoking like a wild-haired chimney in a cardigan, "was that I had to invent a lot."

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Stoppard, an Oscar-winning screenwriter, holds a knighthood and, since the death of Harold Pinter, the status of being perhaps Britain's finest living playwright. But this one really stumped him. "The novel is full of a lot of great things, but very often it consists of a character's thoughts."

The books are built around a love triangle, but there are very few sex scenes; they're often taken for World War I novels, but the battles are often told as stream of consciousness.

"There's no particular dramatic situation, let alone dramatic momentum — a character could be somewhere, or nowhere," he noted. So Stoppard came up with odd moments from this English World War I-era world that move the narrative forward — some of them real, others invented.

The result of all this massaging is the miniseries that runs through Thursday on HBO and stars Benedict Cumberbatch of "Sherlock" fame. A hit in the United Kingdom where it was first shown last summer — its first episode drew 3.5 million viewers and rave reviews — "Parade's End" could mesmerize an American audience or leave it baffled by its Englishness and leisurely storytelling. Critical reaction in America to the series, which began on Tuesday, has been largely positive.

For better and for worse it's hard to avoid comparisons to another British story of Edwardian repression. Salon has called the program "'Downton Abbey' for grown-ups." Some viewers will find "Parade's End" more intellectually rigorous and ambitious than the wildly popular PBS series; others may simply find it duller or more confusing.

Logistically, "Parade's End" started with the BBC commissioning Stoppard to adapt the novels. Creatively, it began with the playwright's engagement with Ford, an early 20th century writer whose work he had not known well, and with Ford's literary creation, Christopher Tietjens.

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Ford has fallen out of the canon a bit, but his contemporaries saw him as a major figure. He ran with Joseph Conrad; as editor of the English Review, he commissioned the timeless story "Odour of Chrysanthemums" from a young D.H. Lawrence. James Joyce and H.G. Wells were friends; Ford's early novel "The Good Soldier" helped invent the unreliable narrator.

Ford knew both war and marital complexity firsthand: In World War I he fought in the Battle of the Somme, and while he remained married his entire adult life to the same woman, he was close enough to three other women that they took his last name. One had a daughter with him.

Stoppard found "Parade's End," for all its modernist experiment, irresistible. "I golluped it down," he says. "It's not a linear book — sometimes you have to keep reading to find out what year you're in. But what was great was, it never really gave you a comfortable poise about what to think about the main characters."

Tietjens was no less complex than his author. Ford calls this backward-looking "son of a Yorkshire country gentleman" the type who writes "letters to the Times, asking in regretful indignation: 'Has the British This or That come to this!'" Near the beginning of the miniseries Tietjens finds that he has been cuckolded by his randy, manipulative wife. "I stand for monogamy and chastity," Tietjens says. "And for not talking about it."

Stoppard says it would be easy to play the wife, Sylvia, as an out-and-out villain. But he believes the actress playing her avoided that. "Rebecca Hall, I thought, really nailed it — she's one of those ambivalent characters about who you think, well, she really does have a point — he would be very difficult to live with, this good man."

The motor of the book, Stoppard says, is an unlikely love triangle: Tietjens falls for a young suffragette named Valentine but refuses to consummate their relationship. "And the undertow in the book is about how the code of honor is rendered outmoded by social history, society in general and war in particular. So the world he believes in, of radical Tory values, starts to become a bit of a joke."

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