As another adaptation of her work comes to television, Ruth Rendell tells Hilary Kingsley what can be lost in translation. At an early screening of Vanity Dies Hard, the latest dramatisation of a Ruth Rendell mystery novel, the actress Rebecca Lacey greeted her co-star Jane Gurnett, who plays a main character, with the comment: “Jane, you look lovely and beautiful in this.’’ Another guest at the screening was immediately prompted to disagree. “Oh no. She has a very strong, characterful face but she isn’t lovely and beautiful at all.”
Gurnett was not dismayed. For this was the opinion of Ruth Rendell, and if the success of her work with television audiences is anything to go by, she knows a thing or two. Rendell is now 65, and in more than 20 years of book writing, she has never softened or sentimentalised her voice, preferring instead to explore her often deeply disturbed characters’ minds.
She has published more than 40 best-selling novels with a great variety of themes and settings but all carrying a clear, usually socialist message. Of those, 17 feature the bucolic, thoughtful Inspector Wexford and have been turned by the producer Neil Zeiger into 53 hours of television since the mid-1980s (for TVS and Meridian). A new Wexford story, Simisola, goes into production in a few months with a script from Alan Plater.
Non-Wexford books will soon equal this tally, it seems. After Vanity Dies Hard, a three-part serial, The Strawberry Tree, a two-parter, follows it to ITV. Next year will see three more serials already filmed, the ghost story Heartstones; The Case Of Coincidence, set in the 1950s and The Secret House of Death, a Hitchcockian thriller.
On top of this, the BBC is mining Rendell’s output of darker, psychological novels, which she writes as Barbara Vine. It will produce its fourth, King Solomon’s Carpet, this year. Slim, with a direct, unblinking manner, Rendell is realistic. She has no interest in going back to old works to adapt them herself. But she does not suffer foolish adaptations gladly.
“An author is never satisfied because what he or she wants is really impossible. We want it translated to the screen, utterly faithfully, in every detail and that’s not possible. It may be very boring too. Authors don’t really know anything about casting, locations, directing anything like that. But what’s most important to me is that the spirit of the book is not lost.”
There have been failures. “There were a couple of early adaptations and one they changed the ending back to my first bad ending and they were flops,’’ she recalls.
“But as soon as the Wexfords started, they began to work, more than I expected. I think it was down to George Baker’s performance as Wexford, even though he didn’t look like the man in the books but grew into him, and Christopher Ravenscroft, who was exactly my idea of Inspector Burden.”
“They’ve added one or two car chases that are not in the books, there may have been a little upping of the sensational aspects but never anything violent, which is why they are re-shown on The Family Channel. I was delighted with the BBC’s version of A Fatal Inversion. The acting was so good, but one takes that for granted in this country. I don’t have script approval as such. But I always read the scripts and make comments and I think they take a lot of notice of me. I can put my foot down.”
Zeiger can verify that. “She’s not backward in coming forward,’’ he says. “But I respect that and so do the writers who adapt her. The plots of her books are always complex and what’s behind them is very complex so there’s always a lot of the novel which you have to exclude. With Master Of The Moor, which was shown last winter, Trevor Preston’s script killed off one character and allowed one character who’s killed in the book to live. It worried Ruth, to put it mildly. So we changed it.”
“But interestingly she and Trevor described what the book was about in the same way the relationship between a father and son, both psychopaths. When Ruth saw the film she said ‘it’s still not my book but I think it’s very good’.”
With Vanity Dies Hard, a story of a rich woman marrying a younger schoolteacher, Zeiger and the scriptwriter, Julian Bond, had the problem of updating what was Rendell’s third book, written in 1965. In it a woman is unknowingly pregnant, something which seems unlikely 30 years on. With two-way consultations, they managed it.
“I was more pleased with Vanity Dies Hard, than anything for quite a while,” Rendell says. “Eleanor David is exactly as I imagined the main character, Alice. And Jane Gurnett is a great surprise. Excellent.” If not lovely.