Anyone who, like me, considers 'The Cruel Sea' to be one of the finest pieces of fiction on the subject of WWII, will surely have been appalled at what Radio 4 has seen fit to do to the book in today's Classic Serial.
Not content with shearing it of every vestige of the subtlety and dry wit that permeates Nicholas Monsarrat's prose and replacing the carefully-drawn relationships between characters with crude soap-opera sensationalism, the adaptation has managed to shoe-horn in a startling amount of 'original' material, including some distinctly pointed social comment.
Among the glaring examples, when a sailor finds his wife is pregnant as the result of an affair, the adaptation includes a lengthy and unlikely dialogue in which the wronged seaman discusses with an officer whether the child needs the love of two parents if it is to thrive. This intrusion completely contradicts the rather less emotionally incontinent novel, in which the unhappy man simply answers an unspoken question with terse and pathetic dignity, "The kid'll be mine, sir, and that's all there is to it."
In the book, the sailor goes AWOL so he can stay at home to guard his wife until her lover leaves the country a week later. This attitude obviously doesn't suit the dramatist, who rewrites the story to have the seaman miss his ship's departure - potential desertion with severe penalties attached - in order to to change and feed the baby until he thinks his young wife has learnt to care for it properly.
Worst of all, though, is the piece on oil tankers. Writing from the heart - the heart of an experienced Naval Officer rather than a media luvvie with an axe to grind - Monsarrat's narrative voice comments on the men who crew the flammable ships:
'Aboard Compass Rose, as in every escort that crossed the Atlantic, there had developed an unstinting admiration of the men who sailed in oil-tankers.[...] The stuff they carried - the life-blood of the whole war - was the most treacherous cargo of all; a single torpedo, a single small bomb, even a stray shot from a machine-gun could transform their ship into a torch.[...] It was these expendable seamen who were the real 'petrol coupons' - the things one could wangle from the garage on the corner; and whenever sailors saw or read of petrol being wasted or stolen, they saw the cost in lives as well, peeping from behind the headlines or the music-hall joke, feeding their anger and disgust.'In the BBC's version of the same piece, the spivs and Flash Harries of the music-hall jokes have vanished, replaced by more fashionable hate figures for the benefit of today's listeners. The reaction to the waste of petrol, completely rewritten to a new agenda, now runs thus:
'I recall those letters to our more upmarket papers, such as the Times, from readers, almost invariably snug in the Home Counties, vociferousy denouncing the Government for their 'socialistic' policy of petrol rationing, demanding their perfect right to drive in their fat, fast cars to whatever race track or pheasant shoot they chose to attend.'If, as A. A. Milne once said, dramatising another writer's work is leaving your own fingermarks in someone else's bread and butter, the BBC has thrown the plate on the floor and trodden the lot into the carpet with muddy boots.
Update: Turns out I wasn't the only one to spot this and think it deserved a post; the perceptive Paul Marks at Counting Cats has documented and commented on several of the other instances in that episode of what he rightly calls 'socialist propaganda'.