Fancy Pencils/Coloring Books: Radio Vs. Television, Round Two

Well, “I ‘aven’t patience.” For indifferent rehashings, that is. Last night I watched the premiere of the long-promised and (at least by me) highly anticipated made-for-television adaptation of H. G. Wells’s comic novel The History of Mr. Polly (1910), a radio dramatization starring Boris Karloff I discussed previously. I have often wondered whether it might not be better to leave it to our minds to color our books or whether the pencils our fancy (or imagination) supplies while listening are perhaps too dull or small in number to do the coloring when not guided by the hand of experience.

Unlike Anthony Pelissier’s 1948 black-and-white screen adaptation starring John Mills, this Mr. Polly was shot in the rich polychromes of a Welsh summer—emerald, sunset gold, and sea blue. Not that Mr. Polly ever ventured into Wales; but Gillies MacKinnon’s picture was made here on location (which led me to create the above collage, the first lines of the novel covered by a Welsh shopfront as I saw it in an excellent state of preservation at the National History Museum at St. Fagans).

Perhaps, the pages were splashed with rather too much color. After all, Mr. Polly’s life is not at all a fancy or brilliant one. When first we meet him, he is middle-aged, dyspeptic, and so thoroughly dissatisfied with his middle-class existence as to contemplate suicide. The misery of his life (or, rather, the monochrome way in which Mr. Polly sees it) does not come across strongly in Adrian Hodges’s retelling of Wells’s story. Unlike the earlier movie adaptation, it even skips the famous opening scene, in which Mr. Polly, sitting on a metaphorical “stile between two threadbare-looking fields” and referring to his situation as a “Beastly Silly Wheeze of a hole!”

This new Mr. Polly is full of holes; and unlike the earlier adaptation, from which it frequently borrows, it tries to fill them synopsizing the character’s early life. Such skimming of pages (handled, in a quaint fashion, by resorting to title cards like “Three Years Later”) leaves us less with a sense of depth than with a feeling of being dragged across the surface without ever getting inside the man. After all, as Wells put it, “Wonderful things must have been going on inside Mr. Polly,” his inner workings suggesting a “badly managed industrial city during a period of depression; agitators, acts of violence, strikes, [. . .] and the thunder of tumbrils. . . .” However well-chosen the leading man, the look on Lee Evans’s suitably “dull and yellowish” face, rarely shown in close up, cannot convey this turmoil; and his lines, substituting for the novel’s opening, are comparatively prosaic.

Mr. Polly is looking more like Miss Potter; even his adversary, the villainous Jim, is looking pale, Wells’s characters drowning in pools of green. Radio adaptations do not suffer from such an excess of paint. Without being vulgar, they can take you “inside” a character like Mr. Polly, giving you a tour of his mind, his heart, and his bowels. They can preserve much of the original text without feeling compelled to translate them into images. They are more likely to succeed in being literate or liberating instead of literal or unfaithful. That is, they are less likely to be burdened by authenticity and claims of infidelity by not having to show us anything as it imagined (rather than imaged) in the text.

It is the listener’s responsibility to fill in the blanks with images supplied by formers readings, by travel and experience. To be sure, phony accents can be misleading; but radio adaptations (depending on the richness of the listener’s empirical knowledge of the world and prior literary excursions) are more likely to be generic than false. It is for these reasons that I’d rather listen to the soft-spoken Mr. Karloff, who, on 17 October 1948, gave voice to Mr. Polly’s complaints in the NBC University Theater production of Wells’s comic tale of discontent.

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