Shiny Shelf

The Ruby in the Smoke

By Eddie Robson on 03 January 2007

I hadn’t got around to reading Philip Pullman’s ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’ until the day its BBC adaptation came on, but it’s so short and neatly written it was perfectly easy to read in the prior afternoon, even for a ponderous reader like me. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced two versions of a text in such a short space of time: sometimes different versions can complement each other, but this is a case where experiencing one first is pretty much guaranteed to spoil the other.

If you watch the TV version first, you’ll probably enjoy it. It’s got a cracking pace, a great cast and good production values. But so much of the joy is in the unfolding of the plot, by the time you come to the book you’ll know it all already – and, additionally, the explanations come so fast that it can be tricky to catch them all on TV. When reading the novel I was grateful to be able to flip back and refresh my memory.

If you read the book first as I did, you’ll miss the usual things that novels offer – depth of characterisation, detail which just doesn’t fit in a more pared-down narrative – but also the wonderful pastiche prose, which continually evokes the period. There’s no visual equivalent for this and the TV version seems a little pale by comparison. In fact, this is a tougher novel to adapt than you might expect. It may have a gripping plot, but its Victorian-style omniscient narrator proves difficult to replace.

More seriously, Pullman’s boldness in making opium abuse a central plank of the plot of a children’s novel is (perhaps understandably) not mirrored by the BBC. This is compounded by the high level of violence, which is less of a problem in prose than when it’s being enacted on-screen, and the result is that it has gone out at 8:30pm, when it should really be a kids’ thing. This leads to an uncertainty of tone, handicapping what is otherwise perfectly good holiday telly.

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By Eddie Robson

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