When I heard that the BBC had produced a dramatic radio adaption of The Dark Is Rising, Susan Cooper’s best-known and perhaps best-loved children’s novel, I was over the moon. I have loved The Dark is Rising and its eponymous series since I first read the books in my late teens or early twenties, and have reread them many times in the nearly four decades since. Having now listened to the podcast, I have mixed feelings about the adaptation; there are things the production does well, and things that aren’t working for me at all.
Before I go any farther, I should warn you that this is NOT a spoiler-free review; it assumes you are already familiar with the story and the characters. It’s also not a review of the book itself. So if you haven’t yet read the book, stop now and go read it, or listen to the audiobook read by Alex Jennings, who does an excellent job.
Let’s start with what the BBC podcast adaptation does well. Most of the voice actors are well cast and give solid, believable performances. As you would expect from a BBC production, their command of accent and dialect is excellent. The narrator provides both plot and visual description; his quiet, deliberate delivery stands in counterpart to the characters’ livelier, more realistic speech. And the dialog and narration are generally very faithful to the book.
Technically, the sound designers’ use of stereo to indicate position and movement of the characters works quite well, as do the sound effects and (for the most part) the music. The theme song grates on me a little, for reasons I can’t quite pin down, but the use of music throughout the narration—for example, hymns and carols actually sung where they are mentioned in the book—definitely enhances the experience.
However, several of the production’s choices detracted from my enjoyment of the story. One of my main complaint is that they chose to have Will and other characters emit inarticulate cries to indicate fear or pain or even wonder. This sort of thing can be effective occasionally, but it is heavily overused here, and I don’t find the cries—Will’s in particular—very convincing most of the time. As a result, I was often thrown out of the story whenever this occurred.
My other major complaint is that the adaptation’s writers take some events out of sequence. For instance, the first or perhaps second episode starts out with most of Stephen’s letter to Will, even though the letter and the gift it accompanies don’t turn up until much later in the book (when the letter is read again.) Unfortunately, the letter gives away Will’s status as an Old One, making the listener privy to information that neither Will nor the reader (of the book) know this early in the story. This decreases the suspense and tension of the early part of the book, when Will is unaware of what he is and bewildered by the strange things that are happening to him. The actual revelation scene, when Merriman tells Will he is an Old One, comes almost as an anticlimax, because the astute listener already knows that Will is special in an unusual way.
These out of sequence segments, whether they are as long as Stephen’s letter, or as short as a snatch of dialog, seem intended to give some foreshadowing or ratchet up the tension, but they have the opposite effect. Cooper’s skill in foreshadowing and pacing (in the original novel) is undermined by the adaptation’s writers’ efforts; they would have done better to leave the novel’s structure and pacing alone.
I’m not sorry I listened to the BBC adaption. It’s far better than the terrible movie adaption,* and on balance, I enjoyed it. But I don’t think I will listen to it again. Next year, I’ll just listen to Alex Jenner’s superb narration of the audiobook instead.
*The Seeker (2007); most fans of the books abhor the movie and pretend it doesn’t exist.
You can find the podcast episodes on the BBC World Service website, or download them wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for “The Dark is Rising.”