Having recorded Drama Republic‘s 2015 adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls when it aired on the BBC in September, I finally got around to watching it this Easter. Having been a set GCSE text since I started teaching, I am pretty familiar with the play. This production has a great number of strengths, though I must admit to having had somewhat mixed feelings by the time the credits rolled.
It is always worth remembering that adaptations, particularly those that cross formats (e.g. a play adapted for film/television) are unlikely to be – and nor, in my opinion, should they be – completely faithful to the original. Books, plays, films, television, radio and so on are all entirely different mediums with their own strengths and weaknesses. The very process of adapting a text for a different medium necessitates making alterations to suit the new medium as well as the stylistic and directorial choices made by the writers, crew and actors.
As an adaptation, I think it’s mostly great. The pace and tension of the text is retained and the revelations of the various characters are equally as dramatic. The characterisations are mostly as per Priestley’s original, with Mr and Mrs Birling (played by Ken Scott and Miranda Richardson respectively) being bigoted and intractable, and Eric (Finn Cole) naive and somewhat vulnerable. As the film progresses, Kyle Soller’s portrayal of Gerald becomes a little more balanced between the older Birlings (symbolic of the past and antiquated belief systems) and the younger (symbolic of future hope and renewed understanding of community and social responsibility) and as such, his return to his former beliefs towards the end is a touch more dramatic, though perhaps a little less realistic. It does, however, point to how vacillating people can be as well as hinting at the problem of societal amnesia across generations. Sheila (played by Chloe Pirrie) is perhaps more vulnerable and quicker to accept responsibility than one might expect, especially as the horrific details of how Eva killed herself is withheld until quite far into the play, though this is far from a criticism and adds to the pretense of bravado that wealth affords.Perhaps the greatest cinematic deviation comes through the use of flashbacks to the scenes between Eva and the various primary characters. This is a great touch and utilises the strength of film to develop the storyline and fulfil modern audience expectations. In the final sequences, the Inspector (David Thewlis) captures the complexity and psychological significance of the role perfectly.
The one area that I think suffers, though, is that relating to Eva Smith/Daisy Renton’s identity. To my mind, the greatest strength of Priestley’s script is that the audience is placed in a similar position to the characters in that we do not know whether their actions have adversely affected the same girl or not. To my mind, the strength of Priestley’s message about social responsibility is that it is unimportant whether or not one girl was the sole victim of the arrogance and actions of the upper class characters or whether they acted in the way they did towards entirely separate girls. The use of the flashbacks acts as a form of dramatic irony, removing this ambiguity. While this arguably makes Eva’s demise more dramatic – actually seeing Sophie Rundle portray her suffering and death is shocking in a way that has heretofore not been shown on stage or screen as far as I am aware – it does weaken Priestley’s social message.
On the whole, Helen Edmundson’s script and Aisling Walsh’s direction work extremely well together, and the film certainly retains the contextual importance of the original. A really captivating ninety minutes which treads a careful but poignant line between the original script and the opportunities afforded through the medium of film.