Every once in a while, Kathleen plants a book in my hands and gives me that You’d be a fool not to read this immediately look.
“It’ll be a break from the other stuff you’re reading,” she said the other day, handing me her library copy of John Preston’s The Dig. “There’s a movie version we can watch as soon as you’re done.”
Kathleen is apt to mention a book she’s reading when she’s fallen in love with it but rarely takes the put-book-in-hand step. Like star baseball players who hit best when runners are on base—when it matters most—Kathleen’s record for such endorsements has enshrined her in my Reading Hall of Fame.
Well, she’s done it again. I found the novel about the 1939 discovery of ancient ruins in England intriguing and compelling—and I highly recommend it.
But she was wrong about one thing. Reading The Dig didn’t exactly serve as a break from my other reading (and thinking). It fit perfectly. I’d been grappling with issues involved in writing historical fiction, imagining the challenges facing authors who take on that kind of work. Just a week before, I’d been fortunate to participate in a Zoom workshop given by Marjan Kamali, deservedly acclaimed author of The Stationery Shop and Together Tea.
Setting a story in anything other than the present time forces the filmmaker, novelist, or playwright to imagine how people from a different time and place thought and acted. While human nature doesn’t change, beliefs, values, and practices do, right along with clothing and musical styles. Memory and research can help the writer, of course, but traps remain. We marvel at the pains that the makers of shows like Downton Abbey take in order to accurately capture older ways of dress and manners while still showing the underlying eternal truths of the human experience. But it’s so easy for writers to treat their characters as if they were their own contemporaries, giving them freedom to do or say things that are normal for today but were hardly commonplace in the fictional setting. It’s tricky sailing.
The novel The Dig manages this challenge beautifully. Published in 2007, its language feels authentic to the period (1939 England), as does its rendering of the characters. Until the epilogue, the story unfolds from the point-of-view of three of the novel’s main characters, with the closing note coming from a fourth. One character offers far more “interior” than the others, a writerly choice that helps the reader grasp their differences. The novel is very much about what of life (an individual’s, a culture’s) endures and what does not, as the archeological dig progresses both literally at the Sutton Hoo site and emotionally within the characters. We see not only what the characters find (and subsequently have or do not have), but most tellingly we are aware of the longing that drives their lives, that won’t let them go. In so many ways, it is a novel about unrequited longing.
This is a subtle work, tightly framed and written. Deceptively simple. Quiet but simmering. The kind of story that creates powerful emotional impact despite the lack of fireworks—or perhaps because of the lack of fireworks. In the end, the story’s parts have built something. I suspect that I’m not the only reader who closed the book and immediately asked: How did he do that?
The film is beautifully shot—with great casting and acting. As with any novel adaptation, certain aspects are fleshed out visually. War is just around the corner, and it will impact everyone. While the book makes this clear in economical fashion, the film somewhat heavy-handedly fills the skies with fighter planes doing training runs, and adds a scene involving one aircraft in particular. It’s hardly a damning touch, and my objection is probably typical of readers watching a film version of a cherished novel. It is one example of subtlety lost in translation.
As to the ultimate actions of characters, the film offered one deviation from the novel that I wouldn’t put on the level of what script writers did to Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, but it definitely got my attention in the wrong way.
It’s a good movie, worth seeing. But the book is steps above it. And for me, that has something to do with novelist John Preston’s ability to render characters in ways that come across as utterly human and universal, yet at the same time as belonging to a very definite (and different) time. Like the artifacts they unearth.
If you’ve read the book and/or seen the film, please share your thoughts here!
Find this review and others on https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4098162448
Here’s an article that offers the novelist’s responses to the changes by the filmmakers. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robsalkowitz/2021/02/03/what-netflix-the-dig-gets-right-and-slanderously-wrong-about-the-sutton-hoo-story/?sh=18f88e31401e
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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on nedbachus.com and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.