Tom Stoppard turns thought into action for ‘Parade’s End’

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Typically, when a writer turns his hand to adapting a long, classic novel for television or film, he comes to terms, early on, with the fact that he’ll have to leave out a lot. Playwright Tom Stoppard has been down this road before — working with books by Vladimir Nabokov, Leo Tolstoy, John Le Carré and others.

But he had the opposite dilemma as he drilled into Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End,” a series of four 1920s novels that add up to more than 800 pages for a five-part miniseries that’s airing on HBO.

“The problem,” Stoppard explains, sitting on the patio outside his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, smoking like a wild-haired chimney in a cardigan, “was that I had to invent a lot.”


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Stoppard, an Oscar-winning screenwriter, holds a knighthood and, since the death of Harold Pinter, the status of being perhaps Britain’s finest living playwright. But this one really stumped him. “The novel is full of a lot of great things, but very often it consists of a character’s thoughts.”

The books are built around a love triangle, but there are very few sex scenes; they’re often taken for World War I novels, but the battles are often told as stream of consciousness.

“There’s no particular dramatic situation, let alone dramatic momentum — a character could be somewhere, or nowhere,” he noted. So Stoppard came up with odd moments from this English World War I-era world that move the narrative forward — some of them real, others invented.

The result of all this massaging is the miniseries that runs through Thursday on HBO and stars Benedict Cumberbatch of “Sherlock” fame. A hit in the United Kingdom where it was first shown last summer — its first episode drew 3.5 million viewers and rave reviews — “Parade’s End” could mesmerize an American audience or leave it baffled by its Englishness and leisurely storytelling. Critical reaction in America to the series, which began on Tuesday, has been largely positive.

For better and for worse it’s hard to avoid comparisons to another British story of Edwardian repression. Salon has called the program “‘Downton Abbey’ for grown-ups.” Some viewers will find “Parade’s End” more intellectually rigorous and ambitious than the wildly popular PBS series; others may simply find it duller or more confusing.


Logistically, “Parade’s End” started with the BBC commissioning Stoppard to adapt the novels. Creatively, it began with the playwright’s engagement with Ford, an early 20th century writer whose work he had not known well, and with Ford’s literary creation, Christopher Tietjens.

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Ford has fallen out of the canon a bit, but his contemporaries saw him as a major figure. He ran with Joseph Conrad; as editor of the English Review, he commissioned the timeless story “Odour of Chrysanthemums” from a young D.H. Lawrence. James Joyce and H.G. Wells were friends; Ford’s early novel “The Good Soldier” helped invent the unreliable narrator.

Ford knew both war and marital complexity firsthand: In World War I he fought in the Battle of the Somme, and while he remained married his entire adult life to the same woman, he was close enough to three other women that they took his last name. One had a daughter with him.

Stoppard found “Parade’s End,” for all its modernist experiment, irresistible. “I golluped it down,” he says. “It’s not a linear book — sometimes you have to keep reading to find out what year you’re in. But what was great was, it never really gave you a comfortable poise about what to think about the main characters.”

Tietjens was no less complex than his author. Ford calls this backward-looking “son of a Yorkshire country gentleman” the type who writes “letters to the Times, asking in regretful indignation: ‘Has the British This or That come to this!’” Near the beginning of the miniseries Tietjens finds that he has been cuckolded by his randy, manipulative wife. “I stand for monogamy and chastity,” Tietjens says. “And for not talking about it.”


Stoppard says it would be easy to play the wife, Sylvia, as an out-and-out villain. But he believes the actress playing her avoided that. “Rebecca Hall, I thought, really nailed it — she’s one of those ambivalent characters about who you think, well, she really does have a point — he would be very difficult to live with, this good man.”

The motor of the book, Stoppard says, is an unlikely love triangle: Tietjens falls for a young suffragette named Valentine but refuses to consummate their relationship. “And the undertow in the book is about how the code of honor is rendered outmoded by social history, society in general and war in particular. So the world he believes in, of radical Tory values, starts to become a bit of a joke.”

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The other key creative player was Susanna White, an English TV and film director who worked on “Bleak House,” “Jane Eyre” and “Generation Kill.” She completed a literature degree at Oxford without reading Ford. But once she looked into his life and work, she was struck by his connections to the visual arts.

“He was friends with the Cubists and Juan Gris, and Picasso, and his grandfather was a painter,” White says. Stoppard told her he writes “talkies,” heavy on dialogue, but she wanted to engage the art of the day, so her direction relied on visual references — in the credit sequence and in some flashbacks — to a style of 1910s English Cubism called Vorticism.

The actress who plays Valentine, the Los Angeles-based Australian Adelaide Clemens, was so excited by the script that she kept sending in tapes of herself performing, and when she didn’t hear back, she flew to London and showed up in period dress. “I asked Susanna for 15 minutes of her time, and it became three hours.”


Getting Cumberbatch took a bit more work. The young actor was originally not considered famous enough for an American audience. But with the success of “Sherlock,” he was suddenly flooded with offers.

Cumberbatch was not sure he could summon a posh Yorkshire accent and feared he was too slender. Stoppard responded by going backstage at the theatrical production of “Frankenstein” in which Cumberbatch starred to twist his arm. Rebecca Hall — an old friend of “Ben’s” from their teenage years — came along to apply pressure.

Today, Cumberbatch calls his character “a bit of a stoical hero” and “a grown-up in a childish world. A man with great command of any subject he turns to. And I am fierce in my defense of him because I love him. His intelligence. His yearning for a more honest life.”

Tietjens’ wife doesn’t have the same regard for him. Hall plays Sylvia as a lusty, restless redhead — Molly Ringwald’s evil twin. But she’s not, Hall says, simply evil: The actress was in awe of her character’s audacity as well as her contradictions. “I thought, if they don’t hate me by the end of the first episode, I’m not doing my job. And if they don’t like me by the end of the fourth episode, I’m not doing my job. I have to play those extremes.”


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