Saturday 12 May 2018

TV – The City and the City

China Miéville's novel The City and the City currently gets my vote as the best SFF novel published this century. It is that rare and precious thing, a very well-written story with a totally original and fascinating plot (my review was published on this blog in March 2012). So I was both delighted that BBC TV decided to make a four-hour adaptation of it, and worried that they might mess it up. The fact that the author is named as a consultant in the TV credits was at least a promising sign. The serial was shown on BBC2 over four weeks in April this year, but I waited until I had recorded all of the episodes before watching them over two consecutive evenings. And I waited before writing this review until I had read the book again, so I could make a direct comparison.

This review will necessarily contain quite a lot of spoilers (although not the solution to the mystery at its heart) so if you don't want those, I'll just say that although the screen version differs quite significantly from the book in some respects, it remains true to the overall plot and powerful atmosphere of the written story. It is a commendable effort, and well worth seeing.

First the background to the story (valid for both book and screen), adapted from my previous review of the book:

The City and the City is set in the present day in an imaginary country (East European or Middle Eastern – the geography is somewhat vague), consisting mainly of one large city. It is a murder mystery, featuring and told by Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad of the city of Besźel. So far, so mundane - but this is no ordinary city. What is peculiar about the city, as the reader soon begins to realise, is that for reasons lost in history it is two organisationally, culturally and linguistically very different cities occupying the same physical fabric. They even have different names: Besźel and Ul Qoma. This doesn't mean the city is carved into sectors like Berlin during the Cold War; while some parts are purely Besźel and others Ul Qoma, these sections are scattered at random throughout the city and the remainder is mixed, with Besźel and Ul Qoma buildings intermingled. Stranger still, the inhabitants of each city are conditioned from childhood only to see the buildings and people of their own city. They can recognise the differences easily enough; the buildings are of different architectural styles and the people dress differently and have different gestures and body language, as well as speaking different languages. It is absolutely forbidden to interact with, acknowledge or even look directly at people or buildings in the "other" city (a crime known as "breach") and the inhabitants learn to "unsee" the other city, ignoring anyone or anything which is not theirs. This draconian rule is enforced by a shadowy and much feared organisation simply called "Breach"; enforcement officers who dress and behave in such a way that they are "unseen" by the inhabitants of both cities, until they suddenly emerge to carry off anyone guilty of breach. The two cities interact in only one place, Copula Hall, which is also the "virtual border" between them. Inhabitants of either city can obtain permission to visit the other, but they have to be trained first to "see" the city they are visiting; which means that for the duration of the visit, they "unsee" their own city.

This bizarre situation can make the life of a police officer like Borlú very complicated, so when a visiting American student, working on an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma, turns up murdered in Besźel, he knows he's in for trouble. Working with his Ul Qoman opposite number he tries to get to the bottom of a complex and murky case, complicated by the apparent involvement of Orciny, a legendary third city "unseen" by the other two, and with the threat of Breach constantly hanging over him.

Now you'd definitely better stop reading if you don't want the spoilers…

The most obvious difference between book and screen is that the screen Borlú (played by David Morrissey) is far more emotionally involved in the mystery, because his wife Katrynia (Lara Pulver), who was also fascinated by the Orciny legend which obsessed the murdered girl, disappeared several years before while researching it. She remains very much in his thoughts and we see her constantly in flashbacks and in his imagination. In the book, she does not exist at all – the only reference to Borlú's personal life being mention of a couple of women whom he sees occasionally, but who have no part in the story.

This difference carries through into Borlú's attitude to the case: in the book, he wants to pass it to Breach to deal with as they have far better resources to solve the crime, but on screen he is desperate to hang onto the case, hoping it might enable him to find out what happened to his wife. This leads to some odd touches, such as a traffic camera video which emerges to demonstrate that a vehicle carrying the girl's body passed legally between Besźel and Ul Qoma, so Breach would not be involved. Borlú receives this with dismay in the book, delight on screen. Similarly, he is reluctant to travel to Ul Qoma in the book, keen to do so on screen.

There are some other incidental differences in the detail: the focus of the mystery, the archaeological dig (Bol Ye'an in Ul Qoma, which dates back to before the two separate cities emerged), is a conventional open-air investigation in the book, a cavern with walls dramatically covered by undeciphered Dan Brown-like diagrams on screen. The Ul Qoma detective Borlú works with is a man in the book, a woman on screen. The young female cop (Corwi) who works for Borlú has a dual role on screen. David Bowden, the academic whose book "Between the City and the City" started the whole Orciny legend, is an elderly man in the book, a younger womaniser on screen. A final odd detail which caught my eye: in the book Borlú does not smoke, the only reference being that he used to, but was determined not to start again; on screen, he chain-smokes cigars. Despite these differences, the screen plot generally follows the book quite closely – occasionally, snatches of conversation are word-for-word the same. The dark and brooding atmosphere is emphasised on screen by the music, especially the theme tune.

Some neologisms crop up in the book but not on screen: "grosstopically" referring to actual physical relationships between buildings in Besźel and Ul Qoma, as opposed to the legal routes via Copula Hall which need to be taken to travel between them; "topolgangers" meaning the two aspects of the same street in areas shared between Besźel and Ul Qoma.

Some more general points: the screen emphasises the differences between Besźel and Ul Qoma more dramatically than the book can. The cities have different economic cycles, and at this time Besźel is a much poorer place, drab and tatty with crumbling infrastructure and old-fashioned brick-like phones, while Ul Qoma is in the middle of an economic boom with glass skyscrapers and smartphones (comparisons between East and West Germany pre-unification give the general idea, although in the book Ul Qoma is one-party police state). In the book there is the odd reference to make it clear that the rest of world is much as it is now: Ul Qoma's new airport terminal being designed by British architect Norman Foster; mention of a song previously popular in Germany, 99 Luftballons (which was also a hit in the UK in the 1980s, as 99 Red Balloons, by Nena); and, most convincingly, mention of Marmite!

I did wonder how the screen would cope with the whole "unseeing" idea, but for the most part it proves straightforward, with the things which Borlú is not supposed to see being blurred out. The one exception is Breach, which in the book have almost supernatural powers, being "unseen" by citizens of both cities (citizens in Besźel assume they are in Ul Qoma, and vice versa) until they choose to "manifest", altering their behaviour to make themselves visible – from seeming blurred to onlookers, they suddenly jump into focus. Although this could have been shown easily enough on screen, this does not happen: Breach agents are visible all of the time but just appear to be ordinary people until they declare themselves. As a result, they appear far less mysterious and formidable, which is disappointing.

So, how do the two versions compare? The screen is more dramatic as might be expected, with more action scenes, as well as being emotionally more fraught. Overall, those involved with the screen version made a good job of it, and I am keeping the recordings to see again sometime (I'll probably read the book first, next time). However, I do prefer the book – it provides a richer experience, allowing a deeper immersion into the strange world of the cities.

I have a rule of thumb that the success of a screen adaptation of a book is closely linked to the running time versus the reading time for the book: if the book takes 5+ hours for me to read (as this one does) then for an optimum adaptation the screen version should run for a similar length of time. The shorter the running time relative to the reading time, the more has to be chopped from the story or rushed through, and the less satisfactory it becomes (the 1984 film version of Dune being a disastrous example, at 2¼ hours to cover a 7+ hour book). Conversely, in those very rare cases when the running time is significantly greater than the reading time (certainly The Hobbit, probably Game of Thrones but I haven't read that) there tends to be a loss of focus and a lot of meandering side-plots. So by that criterion the screen version of The City and the City could have done with just a bit more time. Having said that, I would have liked the book to be longer too!

The Radio Times website contains an interesting article on the serial, here:

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