20 years it took for their cherished novel to finally reach television screens were most likely spent anticipating the disappointment they would inevitably feel. How could a TV adaptation of a tale that pushes all human emotion to the very brink of despair, embodied in the charming Stephen Wraysford (played by Eddie Redmayne), ever replicate the brilliance of Faulks’ pen, let alone his imagination itself?
It was never going to be easy for television to do Birdsong great justice. Depicting World War One, whether it is soldiers pouring onto the bloody soil of No Man’s Land between the pieces of their exploding friends, or the shell-shocked frenzy of man, is unthinkable in itself. To then dig deeper, into the tunnels beneath No Man’s Land – a hell within an already raging hell – is impossible for TV to achieve effectively. A significant tunneling scene that Faulks described, involving just Wraysford and Jack Firebrace (Joseph Mawle), was intended to be set in total darkness. For television this was evidently a critical challenge, which unfortunately makes the scene slightly disappointing. It would never be as powerful in the eyes of the viewer as it is in the mind of the reader.
It is understandable that screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) has dismayed fans. Morgan has radically rearranged the narrative and, to rub salt in the already stinging wound, cut significant chunks of the plot out. Yet, this does not mean that the production shouldn’t be praised. In fact, Morgan has successfully taken the addictive nature of the novel and transformed it for a living room TV set. Morgan’s narrative involves two tangled time periods that flicker back and forth between shuddering experiences of Wreysford’s life. The viewer is repeatedly flung between two intrinsically linked dark tales of love and loss, which prove to be an exciting way to consume each.
The production has also helped to elucidate an aspect of trench warfare that is often overlooked: tunneling. In this respect Birdsong sits on a comfortable pedestal above other
WW1 adaptations, as it is totally distinctive. This could explain why critics allege that Birdsong has outshone Speilberg’s War Horse, and why others acclaim its magnificence for refreshing a generation’s outlook on WWI. Despite the frustration of Faulks’ lovers, this is surely a noble legacy for a two-part drama to uphold.