Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Dramatising We Didn't Mean to go to Sea

(These were some notes I wrote some months ago, which I was asked to turf out by contributors to Tarboard - I hope they are of interest!)

Given a strong script and strong performances, We Didn't Mean to go to Sea has the potential to be the most dramatic and exciting of all the Swallows' stories when adapted for screen or stage. There is genuine peril, and a claustrophobic atmosphere with great cinematic potential: the four heroes trapped in a small boat (the Goblin) and surrounded by a ferocious sea; the arrival at the strange foreign port, hoping that the Dutch harbour pilot will not realise there are only children on board, etc.

There are also a number of key challenges:

  • most of the action takes place across one night in a small boat in the dark
  • some of the favourite characters of other books (e.g. The Amazons and Captain Flint) are absent; instead the Swallows are more-or-less on their own
  • though it works perfectly well in the book, for modern children used to 'mild peril' right up to the end, the comfortable journey home with 'Daddy' at the helm could be something of an anti-climax after all the excitement

Meeting those challenges

  • there need to be regular 'breaths' when we are taken from the high drama of the wild night on the Goblin to something completely different. Fortunately, Ransome provides us with these: there is Mother and Bridget back on the shore, imagining that the Swallows are having a grand old time touring the harbour, blissfully unaware of their terrifying journey, and there is the story of Jim Brading, the master of the Goblin, discovering his ship is gone, etc. These have to be handled carefully – showing the whole of the Jim Brading story as it should happen chronologically would detract from the Swallows' concerns about what had happened to him; there is not a lot for Mother and Bridget to do other than speculate about where the others are. The bulk of the action still has to be the journey. However, there is plenty of action on board. This can still be visually very interesting so long as it is not pitch black: the stormy seas, the rocking ship, the interaction between the characters, the lightships, encountering other vessels, rescuing Sinbad the cat, etc.

  • From a script-writing point of view, developing the relationship between the characters when we are mostly dealing with four is much easier than some of the stories (such as Winter Holiday and Secret Water) where there can be as many as eight or ten central child characters (with a few adults thrown in!) It is an opportunity to develop these characters further (the character of Susan, for example, is developed very subtly in the book)
  • The end is an undoubted problem. It wouldn't do to end it with just seeing 'Daddy' in Holland and not having the return home – too much would be left unresolved. The final drama all comes down to how Mother is going to find out about the events of the night, whether from Jim Brading (and therefore just that children and boat are missing!) or from 'Daddy' and themselves, where the good news can come before any bad. How can that very personal, family drama be made an exciting denouement after all the peril on the high seas?
    The answer, I think, is through the development of the character of Susan. It is Susan who is most concerned about her mother and what she will be thinking about their disappearance. Because Susan has come through the most emotional journey of all the characters on the North Sea crossing, the viewer will be willing the Goblin to get home in time for Mother to be spared the horror of thinking her children must all be drowned, primarily for Susan's sake. However, the pacing of the journey home will need to be handled very carefully. It must not take long, as it is largely incident free, but too quick a journey home and a speedy resolution would be too much of an anti-climax.