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Photograph of 'A Little Life' c. Jan Versweyveld

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23 May 2023

A Little Life’: A worthwhile or unnecessary literary adaptation?

ROBERTO KUMMELSTEDT

A Little Life’s first English adaptation, directed by Ivo Van Hove, has just begun its highly anticipated run at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The production saw unprecedented demand leading to a lengthy extension to its run later this summer.  The play is adapted from the 2015 novel by Hanya Yanagihara which became an unexpected literary phenomenon.

 

The novel.

 

A Little Life begins by introducing us to a group of four best friends who met at college and live in New York. Willem is a beautiful aspiring actor, Malcolm a biracial and sexually confused architect, JB a flamboyant, harsh, yet well-meaning and incredibly talented artist. Finally, there is Jude, a prosecutor. 

 

By the end of the first one hundred pages the novel has definitively moved beyond the ‘four-friends making it in the city narrative.’ The novel quickly hones in on Jude, and his  unspeakably traumatic past.He is enigmatic, mysterious, and perceived as a genius. Jude is loved deeply by his friends and Harold, a university professor, who becomes something of a father figure. To the naked eye, Jude seems perfect. He is kind, gentle and brilliantly clever, frequently described as saint-like. It is evident to the reader early on that Jude’s sainthood is a veneer for his deep trauma made evident through the multiple anatomical decisions of self-harm. For this, and multiple other reasons, the book has developed a reputation as a harrowing read. It would however be a disservice to characterise the book solely as a sorrow fest. Extended passages of the novel are a joy to read albeit more than counterbalanced by the tear jerking moments.
 

Since its publication, the novel has been subject to fierce critical debate. 

 

Upon my first reading, I was utterly transfixed by the world Yanagihara created. I finished the book, which clocks in at almost eight-hundred pages, within seventy-two hours of picking it up. For these three days, and for much of the subsequent weeks, Jude’s world entirely engrossed me. Its proponents argue that it is a captivating character study, pushing the reader to imagine almost unimaginably traumatic events. Further, beyond this tragedy, the book is a beautiful depiction of male friendship, which we rarely get to see. 

 

On the other hand, critics have stated that the book is an exercise in gratuitous torture porn and Yanagihara’s sole aim is to cynically manipulate her readers. Jude is a concept rather than a character defined solely by his suffering, in an utterly unrealistic and pointless way. Undoubtedly, one’s perception of Jude and the relationship they develop with him as a reader will define how they see the book overall.

 

Having re-read the book, I am not quite as enamoured with it, and the emotional manipulation is far more evident. However, I still consider it to be the most engrossing reading experience I have ever had. For this reason, I was intrigued to see how the novel would translate to the stage. So much of my enjoyment reading the book stemmed from occupying the interior consciences of Jude, as well as Willem and Harold. For months I have been fascinated as to how this intense interiority could be reflected in a spoken format. Moreover, the buzz surrounding the play has been immense.

 

So, having now seen the production, does the adaptation work? 

 

The answer is unfortunately not quite.  On the whole, the play deftly condenses the novel’s expansive plot (perhaps too faithfully). The minimalist staging ensures the focus is solely on the characters, as it should be. The cast are also incredible. However, it did not quite dazzle me as the book originally did, and as some Twitter buzz had suggested  it would. 

 

As I stated, the cast are fantastic. The play rests on its two leads far more than the novel, and they do not disappoint. The standout was Luke Thompson as Willem. He was outstanding in evoking Willem’s intense charm, functioning as an emotional anchor, and in a large part he carried the second act. James Norton was very good as Jude, striking a convincing balance between Jude’s endearing external persona and tortuous inner-life. Omari Douglas (who was incredible as Roscoe in ‘It’s a Sin’) features substantially in the play’s opening scenes then rapidly fades. He is brilliant at evoking JB’s fierce bitchiness and unapologetic confidence. 

 

The rest of the cast do not have a lot to do here, and felt superfluous to the production. A more ruthless and effective edit would have dispensed with some of the supporting characters. This is particularly the case with Malcolm, whose already diminished role in the novel was reduced to such an extent that his absence would not have been noticed.

 

The main problem with the play is the aforementioned question of translating Yanagihara’s intense and evocative interiority to the stage. Though Norton was excellent, we could never truly understand Jude’s suffering as clearly as in the book, particularly apparent in the first act when we begin to see Jude’s horrific childhood unfold.  Whilst in the novelYanagihara has done enough exposition that the reader is attached to Jude, on stage such a connection was not yet felt. This meant the persistent cutting felt gory and disconcerting,  as opposed to  devastating. 

 

There is a similar underdevelopment with Harold. Whereas in the book Harold and Jude’s relationship is tender and central to the poignancy of the book, here it comes across as somewhat forced, underexplored and inauthentic.

 

The adaptation also doesn’t manage to evoke the joy of the book’s happiest moments. This made the viewing experience monotonous and less emotionally rewarding. Jude’s endless self-harming scenes work in the book because they are interspersed and juxtaposed with heart-warming, happier passages. This makes Jude’s struggle to imagine a normal existence devastatingly poignant. However, this contrast was lacking in the play. This made the play feel slightly like a montage of tragic moments within Jude’s life rather than a complex fluctuating narrative. There also seemed to be a problematic devotion to the source material’s plot. This made the play’s pacing uneven and led to a particularly clunky final twenty minutes in which many developments from the book felt shoehorned in. 

Necessary or fan-service?

 

The review has to be qualified by the immense impact the book had when I first read it. The adaptation, as expected, made me cry. A lot. The waterworks got going  practically from the first scene. However, throughout the play I found what was going on stage evoked memories of the text, and I was crying at my memories of the text rather than because of what I was necessarily watching. 

 

Perhaps this is an inescapable consequence of loving the book and an unfair criticism. I would be fascinated to know how someone would experience this play going in blind.The production is certainly worth watching; the lengthy 3h40 minute runtime never lags, even with the heavy subject matter. However, despite being a partially successful visualisation of the novel, I do question the artistic justification for this adaptation. Upon reflection, this production ultimately feels more like a well-executed exercise in fan service rather than an innovative or creatively necessary interpretation of Yanagihara’s literary phenomenon.

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