On 20 August Shelf Awareness reported: “Showtime has given a script-to-series order to the planned adaption of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast book series and will co-produce along with Fremantle, “with a writers room set to be opened soon,” Variety reported. The BBC had previously adapted the first two books into a four-episode miniseries starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Christopher Lee in 2000.

Toby Whithouse (Being Human) will serve as showrunner and executive produce along with Neil Gaiman, Akiva Goldsman, Dante Di Loreto, Oliver Jones, Barry Spikings and David Stern.

“The joy of trying to describe Gormenghast to people is one where words will fail you and that’s why there have been people who wanted to film Gormenghast ever since Peake wrote the first book,” Gaiman said. “The BBC once tried but they were all making it in times when depicting the impossible on the screen was too difficult. The great thing now is that we can make it and actually show it and take you there. We are now in a world where you can put the impossible on screen and with Gormenghast, you’re not just dealing with a castle the size of a city but dealing with these incredibly glorious and memorable people.”

The three volumes in the series are Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959). Anthony Burgess writes in his introduction to Titus Groan, that the book (and the series) “is closer to ancient pagan romance than to traditional British fiction”. (Does this perhaps sound a little Game-of-Thrones-ish? Catnip to any television exec.) It’s certainly an over-the-top epic, though less swords and battle-axes than intrigue and personality. The back cover copy to my Penguin edition (55p when printed  in 1973!) calls it “a sustained piece of deadly irony. The characters are weird; the setting fantastic.” From time to time I still dream of the fantastical castle of Gormenghast with its dizzying towers and almost inaccessible spaces. I don’t see it at all like the picture at The Conversation’report on this latest adaptation. Visuals are far too literal: that’s why I will have to reread the books before the Showtime series preempts alternatives. A few of Mervyn Peake’s illustrations are reproduced in the Penguin volumes, though these are by and large of people rather than places. The television adaptation of the Game of Thrones series also fouled up my mental image of the wall — and every other place and person in the books; heck even the dragons. The books were just so much better able to construct an imaginary environment.You can even opt for medieval illustration as Getty’s The Iris blog shows us (Link via Shelf Awareness). I wonder if this visual open-endedness of our memory is why people always seem to find film and television adaptations of books disappointing.* I bet we all imagine Pemberley differently. Being shown a picture of Chatsworth isn’t really helpful: just closes off options. Open-ended is beautiful.

The opposite phenomenon just hit me the other day about another book growing out of World War II. I’m reading Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, and thought I’d “visit” Volgograd to see what the place looked like. Almost unbelievably Google Maps has pretty thorough Street View coverage of the city. It’s completely useless for imagining the scene of the battle though. Noodling around for quite a while I still haven’t seen more than one for two buildings that look like they were built before 1942. Not too surprising perhaps — read the books.

Stalingrad is the prequel to Life and Fate. Unlike that second installment, it was in fact published in Russia in Grossman’s lifetime, in 1952, though it was heavily censored and appeared under a different title (For a Just Cause). The wonderfully readable translation of this volume is also by Robert Chandler, joined on this occasion by his wife, Elizabeth Chandler. He can be heard discussing Life and Fate and other parts of Grossman’s work at my earlier post on Grossman.


* I count the BBC’s 1967 Forsythe Saga as an honorable exception to this rule. The casting seemed totally spot-on with Nyree Dawn Porter, Susan Hampshire, Eric Porter and Kenneth More more or less coinciding with the pictures Galsworthy had conjured up.