It used to be a bit of a slur on a novel to say that it seemed to have been written with the film adaptation in mind. But who today could begrudge any mid-list literary toiler the hope of a production company cheque? It isn't as if there's still a living to be made from books. Besides, novelists have something better than movies to aspire to, something nobler and more expansive. Now that television dramas are the supreme art form of the age, a television adaptation actually counts as a step up, a vindication of the printed source. The likes of Michael Chabon queue up to write for subscription channels and an HBO treatment no more counts against a novel than a Library of America edition does.
So you might not immediately see the problem when I complain that The Dazzle seems desperately to want a television adaptation; who doesn't? Nevertheless, Robert Hudson, who is perhaps better known as a writer of comedy on BBC Radio 4, has set about the task of winning one with such a bleak fixity of purpose as to provide as a cautionary example for the rest of his peers.
Hudson's first novel, The Kilburn Social Club, was a moderately successful high-concept affair about an idealistic football team in a parallel universe version of London. A tough sell, in other words. He takes no chances with the second, which is set in the 1930s in Scarborough, a seaside resort in the north-east of England. There was a society craze for tuna fishing during the inter-war years, so big game is afoot when the (real) English aristocrat Lorenzo Mitchell-Hughes challenges the (real) American adventure novelist Zane Grey to a "tunny" fishing contest. The (fictional) notorious playboy, Johnny Fastolf, Earl of Caister, agrees to host their encounter on his big vulgar motor yacht, and a handful of other historical personages (the adventurer and fabulist Mike Mitchell-Hedges plus a giddy young journalist by the name of Martha Gellhorn) descend to take in the show.
The fish and the northern setting are mildly quirky elements, but otherwise we are squarely in Downton Abbey world, the wheelhouse of the British prestige drama industry. Toffs and the aftermath of the First World War are practically the only things the British know how to make television programmes about; they are immoderately rewarded whenever they do and they already have all the props and costumes, so at a certain level Hudson evidently knew what he was about when making his calculations.
Alas, there are things you can pull off on TV that just look cheap or confused in fiction. In particular, even the most reputable shows - The Wire or Breaking Bad, say - tend to run on a fuel of thillerish hokum, and rely on their funereal pace and eye for detail to generate the stately atmosphere of Serious Art. It's hard to manage the same trick in a novel. David Mitchell, of Cloud Atlas fame, is British fiction's acknowledged master of august froth, but even he raised eyebrows with his last novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which began as an opulent evocation of a Dutch trading post in 18th-century Japan and then squandered its fabulous scenery on a story about escaping from an evil wizard. Television, like opera, can dignify stupidity. Novels can sometimes get away with it, but they had better not try to claim snob value in the same breath.
From : The National