Birdsong is a troubled piece of literature. It was a pretty excellent book but it's had some serious issues making it to our screens, having been stuck in limbo for the longest of times. There was also a stage adaptation, but I think everyone who had even heard of such a thing knows that the less said about it the better. But now that the BBC has taken the reigns on bringing Birdsong to us in a visual manner, we finally have something we can really sink our teeth into, so let's dive in.
All's fair in love and war.
The story is set in both a grim, dirty and relentlessly realistic depiction of World War One and also in a nice area of France, where workers are striking, four years before the war started. The story follows a man by the name of Stephen Wraysford, through both narratives, one where he begins a budding romance with a factory worker's wife and one where he suffers tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. The World War narrative is especially brutal and unforgiving on your emotions, with a clear amount of time spent on the gore when a soldier is ripped open by shellfire, bullets or metaphorically, as this was not exactly something for the faint hearted. To contrast this, Stephen's journey in the pre-war narrative plays out like a romantic story. I wanted to think of an adjective there but I can only think of the words "typical" and "Cheesy" which do not fit when Stephen has a very graphic sex scene during the narrative.
Yes they followed the novel very closely, even in the minutest ways, such as the details of the sexual encounters and the amount of bullets Stephen fires during the Battle of the Somme. While I think that it is good it stayed close to the source material, I feel that some scenes weren't needed too much and some don't even make sense in the transition to the screen, which I'll discuss in a little bit. A big omission is the modern narrative, where a woman by the name of Elizabeth in the late 20th century would learn of Stephen's journey through his diary and cope with her own love story. I have to say I couldn't be more pleased that this was cut out as it was arguably the most pointless part of the novel. You would feel sorry for the characters having to endure the harsh conditions of a battle that went abysmally on poor command, with the popular World War One motif of "Lions lead by Donkeys" occurring, but then we would be snapped out of this to hear about some woman we've never heard of before doing unrelated things. Elizabeth's story only seems to serve as answering a question of "How would a modern audience react to such atrocities?" That is most certainly a worthwhile question, but it's already being answered because a modern audience is already reading and reacting to it all, so she only served to remind us of the emotions that she was interrupting, which was a bad move by Faulks and a good move by the writers to cut it out.
The sets of the show deserve some serious recognition, with brilliant contrasts to the Pre-war's bright green foliage to the barren, muddy wasteland of the Great War, and even the posh housing the commanding officers were in contrasted with the sickening conditions all the troops were forced into. These are complimented by a very good soundtrack, although not particularly memorable, but they always manage to compliment the mood well.
The acting should also receive compliments all around with pretty much everyone delivering a solid performance, even one fellow who twitched during a death scene. Stephen's actor, Eddie Redmayne seems surprisingly bland when you compare him to other characters, but I guess that comes with the character in general, being written as surprisingly passive except during a few key moments.
Expect better characterisation for the fellows behind him
One of the main flaws however comes from Stephen Wraysford and how the book was written, as while he was passive most of the time in conversation, most of the book consisted of his inner dialogue, something the film pretty much throws away, which is both good and bad. It's good because having an inner monologue is a tricky thing to do and not many are able to pull it off. Enduring Love is an example I think of adapting an inner monologue poorly by having the main character discuss his thoughts with friends, which was bad for when the character started to lose his mind a bit, he ended up acting very unlikable. It's bad however because there are a few scenes that don't make an awful lot of sense without the workings of Stephen's mind. There's this one scene that makes sense in the book and shows Stephen's descent into madness from the horrors of the war, but in the TV series it seems random and makes Stephen seem psychotic and leaves it as for why he did such a very shocking act unexplained. Not even open to interpretation.
There are a few nitpicks I could make about Stephen's character, like his fear of birds is gone, reducing the namesake of the series somewhat. Birds aren't actually mentioned in the two episodes, so that makes the name out of place somewhat. He is also described as being fairly grizzled in the books, while he seems rather immaculate in the TV show until the story goes on and tragedies start to happen. We first see him two years into the war, I have done enough research to know that some pretty nasty stuff was happening before then, and I refuse to believe that nothing would have affected his mental state by then. He actually is an alcoholic in the book, a fairly severe one, but this issue is touched lightly in the show. It shows him getting drunk which isn't too bad. Quite a few of the soldiers get drunk at some point but that alone does not show alcoholism, and that's all it is. Occasionally, once or twice, we see him drunk. That is not being alcoholic, that could easily be interpreted as him just getting drunk, people do it all the time.
Overall, the TV show is faithful to the original story, sometimes a little too faithful in some of the more intimate moments, and while it is masterfully done it does have a major disadvantage of being let down by the poor handling of the main character, particularly his thoughts, something that was very important in the main book (He kept a diary, which not only shows his thoughts are important, but such a thing would have actually have made a nice bridge with the modern narrative and given it a purpose beyond reaffirming established emotions). But it's still great watching it and provides quite a thing to behold and serves as a good alternative to reading the book, though it doesn't break the common habit of the book still being superior.