Bernard Cornwell on Adaptations: “Stand back and let them do what they do best”

Bernard Cornwell on Adaptations: “Stand back and let them do what they do best”

All readers know the pain of watching a favorite book transform into an adaptation that just doesn’t stack up (*cough*My Sister’s Keeper*cough*), but readers’ frustrations can’t even begin to compare with an author’s. Many authors famously rejected the adaptations of their works, and some like J.D. Salinger even outright forbade it—which is why we’ll never see a Catcher in the Rye movie. But TV and movie adaptations don’t need to be so angst-ridden. Author Bernard Cornwell has seen many of his own works hit screens big and small, and he doesn’t sweat the changes at all. In fact, his latest release, Warriors of the Storm, will likely be adapted by BBC as they continue turning the popular book series into a television series titled The Last Kingdom. Here, Cornwell shares four important tips for authors who are dealing with adaptation anxiety.

I worked in television for 11 years, so many of my readers assume that I was closely involved with the TV adaptations of my books. There were 16 episodes in a series that followed the adventures of Richard Sharpe, and, so far, there are eight in The Last Kingdom series (and yes, they are making a second season). People assume I helped write the scripts or, at the very least, was a technical adviser.

It’s true that my television experience was extremely useful when the two series were made, and that experience taught me the first and most important rule:

Don’t get involved

I know a lot about television production, far more than most authors. I spent 11 years directing live studio transmissions, making films, and running programs for the BBC, but all that experience was in news and current affairs. I learned nothing about producing or directing television drama.

So what can I offer a drama production? Nothing, except to be a cheerleader. Carnival Films, who are now making the second season of The Last Kingdom, made (among many other projects) Downton Abbey. It’s inconceivable that I can tell them anything about their business! They’re among the best in the world, so I stand back and let them do what they do best!

Making television or films is hard work, very hard work. It’s dependent on the contribution of scores of clever people: wardrobe, lighting, cinematographers, script-writers, location, catering, producers, accountants, make-up artists, musicians, directors, sound engineers, carpenters, designers, drivers, wranglers, stunt performers—the list could go on forever. There’s a lot that can go wrong! The weather can ruin a schedule, or a plane flying over at the wrong moment can destroy a perfect take. The last thing film crews need is an author whining that they have corrupted his or her vision. Any complaint I make is liable to be an obstacle and the last thing they need is another obstacle.

Accept that their vision will be different

I hope it is different! When the Sharpe series was made many readers complained that Sean Bean, playing Sharpe, had fair hair while the character in the books had black hair. So what? Sean made the perfect Sharpe, so good that in all the subsequent Sharpe books I had his portrayal in my mind and deliberately wrote the books as if Sean was my hero (and never again mentioned his hair color). That was a gift from the filmmakers! Equally, Peter Postlethwaite’s portrayal of the arch-villain Obadiah Hakeswill was masterful, far better than my feeble version on the page. The folks who produce television (and movie) dramas are inventive, imaginative and brilliant, so be grateful for their creative input. It adds richness.

Accept that the story will change

Television producers have one great constraint: the budget! It costs an author nothing to invent an army of 100,000 men or to sink a battleship or to flatten a city block, but all those things cost money when they get translated to the screen—lots of money! Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) can help, of course, but CGI is expensive. If a scene is simply too expensive for the available budget then the story on screen will work around it. That may be regrettable, but it’s also inevitable. Accept it.

The first two Saxon books added up to around 250,000 words, and you can tell a lot of story in 250,000 words. The TV version had eight hours to tell the same tale. That meant leaving out certain characters and ignoring whole episodes, a streamlining job that Carnival did brilliantly. No point in lamenting the missing episodes; it’s inevitable.

Don’t be seduced

I’m mentioning this last, but it is the second most important rule. Do not be seduced by the “glamour” of the business. It might be tempting to think you’ll rub shoulders with famous actors, but the author’s job is to write books, not make films. You will not find yourself walking the red carpet! Your usefulness to them ends when they buy the rights to the story; after that it’s their business. There are rewards, though. I’ve had the supreme pleasure of watching actors like Sean Bean, Alexander Dreymon, Emily Mortimer, David Dawson, Matthew Macfadyen, Daniel Craig, Elizabeth Hurley, Peter Postlethwaite, Brian Cox, and scores of others bring my books to life on the screen. What’s not to like about that?

Bernard Cornwell is the author of the acclaimed New York Times bestselling Saxon Tales series, which serves as the basis for the BBC America series The Last Kingdom. He lives with his wife on Cape Cod and in Charleston, South Carolina.


  1. I just wish that the producers of the Saxon Chronicles television episodes didn’t make up all the actors portraying the “fearsome” Danes to look like a bunch of overage Goth club-boys. Go easy on the eyeliner, folks! ;^)

  2. Well, point taken Mr Cornwell, but I still think the series is crumby. The main problem is that the actor playing Uhtred is a pretty boy that I cannot imagine standing in a shield wall much less leading one as portrayed in the final battle seen of The Pale Horseman. I watched one of the episodes with my sons and they were seriously unimpressed.

  3. Anybody who read more than just the first novel in the Saxon Chronicles would be motivated to watch the screen adaptation. Then they would experience a representation of Uhtred wholly unlike the character in the book. Uhtred in the written works may not have been huge or tall by today’s standards, but he was definitely imposing in the stories, and many other characters in the stories assumed he was a Dane because of his long shaggy blond hair, muscular physique, and powerful personality. The actor in the screen adaption is NONE of these things. He is diminutive, meek, always moping about everything… and his damn hair isn’t blond. Pretending those aspects just don’t matter because the film makers are the experts is pretty lame. I had thought Cornwell would have cared about such details more, so the visual experience could be a true extension of the reading experience. NOPE

  4. I must be in the minority because I loved the books and enjoyed the TV show a ton as well. I do wish one season equaled one book as the TV series moves way way too fast. Also, it is disappointing that a major part of the books was naval battles and the naval supremacy of the northmen over the English. But I understand that building such massive fleets would be expensive and I can see why they totally avoided it. As opposed to the other reviewer I absolutely am in love with the main character on the screen. I don’t know how they’re going to age if if they do at all, but I cannot wait to see how the series plays out. Season 4 baby!

Leave a Reply