“Your book is finally on the screen. How does it feel?”
That was the question I was asked a lot at the recent screening of ITV’s excellent forthcoming drama, Harry Price: Ghost Hunter.
Not that it’s a strictly accurate question, because my book isn’t really on the screen, is it?
The Ghost Hunters, my 2013 debut novel about the life and investigations of Britain’s most infamous paranormal detective, is sitting on the shelves in bookshops everywhere. It’s on Amazon and iTunes. And the characters living within its pages aren’t going anywhere. Harry Price and Sarah Grey are hunting ghosts in 1920s London, exposing the spiritualist mediums who prey on the credulous and the bereaved.
The idea to tell Price’s story on the page had always sat at the back of my mind. I’d known about Harry Price and his investigations into the paranormal since I was a boy and watched a show about his investigation to Borley Rectory, “the most haunted house in England.” Harry Price died in 1948, leaving the largest library on the occult anywhere in the world to the University of London where it resides, to this day, within the bowels of Senate House. It was there that I began writing the novel that this Christmas will make it to the television screens all over the country.
Did I think the story would make it to the screen? I certainly hoped it would. This wasn’t just a timeless story. It was one populated by timeless and intrinsically compelling characters. Harry Price was an enigma. I’m not sure anyone could claim to have known the true man behind the façade he presented to the media, his followers and his critics. But he was brilliant and ambitious; selfish and unreliable; elusive but charming. An entrepreneur. It’s easy to see how a young woman would be drawn to such a man, and that’s how I approached the story – through the eyes of the fictional Sarah Grey.
In my novel, when we meet Sarah she’s a drifter, lost in many ways. In Harry Price she recognises an opportunity to be useful – part of a greater picture – and as their friendship grows, her feelings of gratitude and esteem, assume a romantic aspect that is more implied and explicit.
In the drama, Sarah is beautifully portrayed by Cara Theobold and when we met at the screening I explained the long journey from the page to the screen. For a long time we heard nothing. In fact, by the beginning of the year I was convinced it would never happen. But people in the business were at pains to tell me that adaptations were an arduous, sometimes frustrating process that could take many, many years.
The actor splendidly cast in the title role is Rafe Spall. We shared a moment. He told me of a bizarre coincidence: that he and the real Harry Price went to the same school. Their names even appear next to each other on the school website of notable alumni!
I wonder: what are the chances? Not just of that bizarre concurrence, but the chances of this happening now, to me, to my first book? I think: ‘I’m lucky. This moment is special. Some authors wait their whole career for this.’
“Are you worried they have deviated from your plot?” I have been asked.
As the author of the original work you hope the screen adaptation will reflect some of your ideas. However, as anyone in the business will attest, transforming a book into a script is not easy. Often there are tremendous and necessary differences; characters and plotlines are dropped and combined. There’s nothing wrong with deviation if the original material is honoured.
I have not written the intense, vivid script; I have not had any input into the splendidly judged casting decisions; in fact, my involvement as “creative consultant” has been fairly limited. How do I feel about this drama to which my name will be permanently attached? Is the production as I envisaged? Does it meet my approval? My expectations?
The truth is I had no expectations, partly because this experience has been a genuine first for me, but mostly because I do believe that, as a novelist, once you have sold the dramatic rights to your work, it is your professional duty to stand back and let the producers, directors and actors do their best work.
Reading the script felt very different to reading my book. Plotlines had been dropped, new characters introduced. And that’s entirely normal in the adaptation process. So I was surprised when I saw the film that it reflected so much of the spirit of my story.
Watching the film, I see a London choked with grief and longing for hope; lost faces remembering lost loves. The story world I created is right here, in front of me. No longer in my readers’ heads or just existing on the page, but inhabited by my characters. No doubt – the essence of The Ghost Hunters has been faithfully preserved in this adaptation. This drama is loyal to the spirit of my work, and I’m delighted.
I’m excited as well; because there are mutterings that Harry and Sarah could return to ITV next year in a full series of investigations – an idea that has its roots in the opening pages of my novel. I can’t help thinking the showman in the real Harry Price would approve of this idea.
With The Ghost Hunters now a major ITV drama receiving rave reviews, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when we had interest in my second novel, The Watchers – a tale about UFO sightings during the Cold War. I’d written this book imagining it as a screenplay. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the bidding war that followed. My agent in LA would call with updates very few days. First we had two offers, then three, four… The deal went to an eight-way auction and the rights eventually sold to DNA Films and TV. It was a hard decision to make, and not just a financial one. As important as the numbers are, it’s equally important to trust your gut and go with the people you trust the most.
We’ll have to wait and see whether The Watchers makes it to the screen; indeed, whether there will be more episodes of Harry Price: Ghost Hunter remains to be seen.
Whatever happens, one thing is certain: Harry and Sarah’s journey will continue on the page because I have just been commissioned by my publisher to write a sequel to The Ghost Hunters. Some characters just won’t let you rest. And like the spirits they investigate, Harry Price and Sarah Grey seem to be some of them.
Neil Spring is the author of The Ghost Hunters and The Watchers, published by Quercus.