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Book at Bedtime: A short guide to abridging, in 10 parts

27 July 2015

Ever since The Three Hostages by John Buchan was broadcast in 1949, Book at Bedtime has been giving audiences the pleasure of being read to as sleep beckons. The latest book to be abridged, by radio dramatist ROBIN BROOKS, is Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Brooks' job is to cut the works of great novelists down to size for the listener. He has previously grappled with James Joyce's Ulysses, I, Claudius by Robert Graves and Ovid's The Art of Love. Here he gives the inside track on the art of abridging.

Go Set a Watchman begins on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime on 10 August.

Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, published in the UK by Heinemann

My dear producer Eilidh McCreadie asked me to write about abridging for Book at Bedtime, and I duly turned out a detailed account. But she said, gosh, Robin, this is a bit long, why not cut it down into ten short episodes?


First of all, the maths. Your 14-minute episode allows you approximately 2,000 words. So – if you’re lucky enough to get 10 episodes – that’s 20,000 words total.


But the novel you’ve been given may be getting on for – like, e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird – 100,000 words... or more. So now you’ve got to get rid of at least 80% of the original.


How can you possibly do justice to some great masterpiece while chucking away most of it?


You can’t. But the slot remains popular – no plans to abolish Book at Bedtime I’ve heard of yet – it must work somehow. So what can you do?


You know it’s at least a flavour of the original. You might take comfort from the fact that the listener will at least hear the writer’s voice; this is no small thing, this is sort of what Book at Bedtime is all about.


Some kinds of fiction are easier to abridge than others. “Picaresque” is a welcome word. Anything episodic is good. Choose some. Cut others. Bingo!

Don Quixote: A picaresque novel

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Illustration shows Don Quixote in a wooden cage pulled along by oxen. From an edition published in Barcelona. | Getty Images


Don’t go near a detective plot. You have to leave out most of the red herrings, and then what’s the point?

The Big Sleep: Hardboiled & labyrinthine

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, 1946. The screenplay of Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel was co-written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman | Getty Images


Also avoid authors who create a tightly-woven tapestry in which one pulled thread unravels all. That cunning swine Graham Greene, for instance. Treat him and his like with caution.

'Bogies' & Greene - a tough day for the abridger

Richard Attenborough and Dulcie Gray in Frank Harvey's 1943 stage adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. Greene called it 'extraordinarily careless' and even contemplated legal action. The classic 1947 Boulting brothers film, for which Greene wrote the screenplay himself, fared better: 'the first time I have seen one of my books on the screen with any real pleasure.' | Getty Images


Anyway, you can enjoy chopping things to pieces! Because –


Actually, it is an education, and even a bit of a privilege, to be hired to get your knife into a fine novel, and hack and slash and work out which bit is the beating heart, and which just the… appendix.


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