Adapting literature for Social Media

Adapting literature for Social Media

Adapting long-form narrative for something brief and transitory like a Tweet is a challenge

It’s something James Walker and myself have experimented with over the past couple of years, so when the opportunity to re-interpret Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was presented by the University of Nottingham, we jumped at the chance. Even better, was the fact that the Twitter feed would form part of the UK’s first National Festival of the Humanities.

Working with a transcript of Sillitoe’s screenplay, I was able to generate a spreadsheet with individual cells containing lines of dialogue. Against these I matched account names that might be used to represent the characters on Twitter.

I have used Hootsuite as a Twitter management tool for some years. I used to be a big fan of Tweetdeck but one of their software updates was a disaster and I never went back. The benefit of these applications is the ability to schedule Tweets from multiple accounts. However, the Twitter API is rate-limited, which only allows clients to make a limited number of calls per hour. Hootsuite’s calendar is set to five-minute increments, so I began the task of allocating time slots for individual rows of dialogue in my spreadsheet.

Whilst five-minute slots are adequate for scheduling marketing campaigns, it is not really practical for constructing a fast-paced narrative such as Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Further research revealed that Tweetdeck is now much more granular, allowing sequencing in one-minute increments and so I considered switching from Hootsuite. Unfortunately, the caveat here is the fact that sustained automated messaging risks triggering Twitter’s spam filters. Twitter API calls are logged against the public facing IP address of the device making the request. This is to safeguard the network against spurious activity that infringes their terms of use.

Twitter may be designed for handling phenomenal amounts of web traffic, but the creation of individual Twitter accounts for fictitious characters and then having these characters engage in conversation could be interpreted as operating fake accounts. This can result in having the offending Twitter account suspended. Coupled with the abrasive, sometimes inflammatory dialogue of Arthur Seaton, alarm bells started to ring.

Censorship

Audiences of Karel Reisz’s 1960 film adaptation were shocked. But incredibly, audiences today may be more incensed by some of the dialogue and themes first raised by Sillitoe in the 1950s. Our first indication of this shift in morality came during our adaptation for ‘The Space’ – the first version of the digital on-demand arts platform, which was then subject to BBC editorial guidelines.

In Sillitoe’s novel he talks of putting a thousand ton of TNT in Mortimer’s hole and blowing up Nottingham Castle. In light of current sensitivities about terrorist acts we were advised against using this reference. Similarly, our desire to ask ‘who are today’s Bastards’ was edited out of our narrative even though it features in the opening sequence to Reisz’s movie and formed a central part of our enquiry. Similar concerns were raised about the Sillitoe Trail iPhone App and its focus on realism and use of profanities. I have to admit, that rather than having our App rejected, I used the spelling ‘b*stard’ throughout, a concession I also applied to our Twitter feed, in an attempt to comply with their editorial guidelines, but also mindful of the public screens.

Social networks are spaces where editorial control is relinquished, where crafted cultural assets are routinely fed to the lions – chewed up and spat out. There was always a danger that our 1958 narrative could be hijacked or misinterpreted by other Twitter users which might read it out of context, report us for obscenity and result in our feed becoming blocked.

Curated Lists

One of Twitter’s most powerful features is the ability to curate lists of other feeds. These might be Individual accounts that are relevant to your special area of interest. Lists are a neat way of filtering out the noise that one associates with the platform. It also offered a perfect method for bringing together the individual voices of our imaginary cast. This cleverly-constructed Twitter list would form the basis of our 24 hour presentation.

Twitter accounts are tied to individual email addresses and so it became necessary to establish individual email accounts for our characters under the www.beingarthur.co.uk domain. Managing login and passwords was an effort in itself. But eventually our cast members had their own Twitter profiles and were ready to talk to each other.

Initially our curated list consisted of just two accounts; one for Arthur Seaton @beingarthur1938 and another for Factory foreman Charlie Roberts @robboe1913. Note that I had to invent first names and second names for some of the characters when setting up accounts for them (along with birth-dates as mentioned in my previous blog). A couple of days prior to the live Tweet I was able to try out a short piece of dialogue between these two characters and display the results on the website using an embed-code snippet from Twitter – it worked perfectly.

Our own adaptation would differ from Sillitoe’s novel and screenplay. My original concept was to break down the action into seven different themes, these would be similar to the themes and locations of our Sillitoe Trail. Having outlined these themes I gave the script to James for him to extract the dialogue we would need to tell the story.

Working with the original screenplay it soon became apparent that we would have to be very economic in order to condense the action into just 24 hours. I also identified a total of seventeen characters that had speaking parts.

Technical partner Steve Crofts also worked on creating a module that would give characters individual WordPress profiles – this presented an opportunity to develop a dynamic Facebook-style wall which was functional at the time of the 24 hour Tweet, but time constraints and the need to channel website visitors to our embedded feeds effectively side-lined this feature.

Screens in the Wild

Whilst James was busy adapting Sillitoe’s dialogue, I wrote code with Steve North at the University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab so that we could run the embedded Twitter feed on public screens outside the Broadway Cinema and New Art Exchange.

A couple of days before the live event I received seven themed scripts from James. It was late when I read them on our shared GoogleDrive and they made me laugh, so I knew we had an entertaining narrative that spoke in the belligerent, cheeky tone of Arthur Seaton. The number of speaking parts had been reduced to only ten. These accounts were then added to the curated list.

Having input the first theme into the database, it soon became apparent that five-minute intervals was simply not going to work as each theme would take about six hours to complete. There was no alternative, the live Twitter adaptation would have to be exactly that – live – updated manually in real-time.

Then and Now

In addition to the curated feed, we wanted to allow some interaction and offer a modern-day twist to the character. So, we hit on the idea of embedding two parallel Twitter feeds on the website; one featuring the curated feed @Beingarthur/list/saturdaynight/ and the other based on a modern day Seaton character that James had originally created for The Space @thespacelathe. We illustrated each one of these with an appropriate image and a bold caption citing ‘then’ and ‘now’ respectively.

At the time of our ‘broadcast’ the embedded feeds and public screens at Broadway, New Art Exchange, Leytonstone and Walthamstow provided a focus and kept everything on-track. Avatars of each of the characters were created from movie publicity stills. These were subsequently treated with saturated colours in order to differentiate them ‘at-a-glance’ in the Twitter feed. Main themes and scene changes would also be introduced by uploading images to the feed via the characters or via a neutral Twitter account created especially for this purpose: The @story_producer account could be used to add elements and dialogue in the third-person.

Images were stored on a MacBook which was more-or-less logged-in to the beingarthur1938 Twitter account for the whole 24 hours. This was mainly due to the fact that the story is told through Arthur’s perspective and he would be posting the majority of the images; ie Point-of-view shots of him falling down stairs in the White Horse pub scene, or posting sequential imagery representing full and empty beer glasses to help illustrate his drinking challenge with a drunken sailor – @drunksailor1933.

A desktop machine loaded with Hootsuite was used to co-ordinate most of the dialogue from a total of eleven individual Twitter accounts, aggregated into the curated list embedded on the web-site. The dual Twitter feeds, ‘then’ and ‘now’ were also displayed on an iPad screen in order to monitor what was going out to the public.

Auto-correct hell

One unforeseen issue was the constant battle with predictive text algorithms that frequently ‘corrected’ Sillitoe’s written dialect. ‘Summat’ was constantly changed to ‘Summit’ for example. This could rob you of vital minutes when inputting dialogue from a printed script.

All seven scripts were made available as hard-copy to facilitate additional margin notes relating to supporting images or last minute edits. On Saturday, we adhered to the timings stated on the website, with a short 40 minute break between each theme. During the breaks we took the opportunity to highlight relevant sections of the Sillitoe Trail website providing links to essays and video content. Our fifth theme ‘Midnight’ concluded at 1.30am and resolved on a holding-screen featuring an image of a terraced house located in Radford and captioned ‘Sunday Morning’.

On-schedule

Sunday’s schedule commenced at 10.00am. The two themes ‘Embankment’ and ‘Suburbia’ involved a great deal of Arthur’s internal thoughts and rapid interplay between Arthur and Bert (Embankment), and Arthur and Doreen (Suburbia). It was necessary to monitor the clock constantly in order to complete the sequence on cue – again, I was mindful of the scheduled slots allocated on the University’s networked ‘Screens in the wild’ and anxious not to get ‘cut off’ before displaying the final scene of Arthur and Doreen hand-in-hand overlooking a new housing estate.

The 24 hour Twitter version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a valuable exercise in adapting literary and cinematic forms for social media and is no doubt, an area we wish to explore in the future. Our remaining task involves archiving the Twitter feed and finding a method of displaying the narrative in chronological order – oldest post first. We will also be producing an ebook publication with excerpts from both ‘then’ and ‘now’ feeds.

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