mMost people clearly find it squirming to see themselves on the screen. Even an accidental look in the mirror can trigger a minor identity crisis, as we glimpse the gap between how others see us and how we imagine ourselves. But for writers whose life stories have been adapted for television — their flawed personalities painstakingly mimicked by actors — the experience can be even more baffling.
“Weird is the only way to describe it,” reflects Adam Kay, whose 2017 bestselling book This Is Going to Hurt, a memoir of his hellish and hilarious years as a doctor-in-training, will land on BBC One in 2022. On TV, Kay is played by Ben Whishaw, who apparently took his research seriously. “I saw an early cut with my husband,” Kay recalls, “and he said, ‘It’s amazing how he has all your weird mannerisms.’ I didn’t even know I had weird mannerisms!”
Dolly Alderton, whose acclaimed account of her ‘roaring 20s’ in London, Everything I Know About Love, also appears on the BBC this year, found it disconcerting to see her on-screen reconstructing life. “It was really, really trippy,” she says. “Some of the fight scenes were verbatim conversations that happened in my life ten years ago, and it felt really strange to watch them.”
For Alderton, the creative team’s obsessive attention to detail made a visit to the set creepy. “There were all these little details that were a copy of the house I lived in,” she explains. “I sent the art director a photo of a drunken letter I wrote to my friend, promising that if she came out with me that night, I would wake her up early for work the next morning. And there was that letter, from one fictitious roommate to another, stuck on the fridge.”
Despite terrifying moments of déja vu, Kay and Alderton have both kept a firm grip on the reins of their stories by adapting the memoirs themselves. But Stephanie Land, whose book Maid gave rise to a hit Netflix series last year — with audience figures second only to the streamer’s other massive success story, Squid Game — gave control to screenwriters who worked under John Wells, former showrunner of ER and The West Wing.
“When I heard that they were planning to fictionalize the characters, I was relieved,” she says. “It’s one thing to write a story about your child’s life. It’s another thing to have it play as a series.”
But while the writers of Maid crafted a story that was part true and part fiction, rewriting Land as a young woman named Alex and her daughter Story as Maddy, there were moments taken straight from real life that were close to home. came, especially when it came to the scenes of abuse. “There were definitely aspects of the show that surprised me in my body’s response to it,” Land tells me. “A few times, when it came to a shot of [Alex’s boyfriend] bending over to scream in her face, it made me cringe. “Those parts were a little too real and I wasn’t prepared for it.”
Like Land, Alderton’s on-screen alter ego goes by a different name: Maggie, but telling them apart isn’t always easy. “It would be a lie to say I can completely depersonalize it,” she admits. “There were definitely moments in the story-picking process where I realized that when I was defending Maggie, I was actually defending myself.”
For Kay, the distinction between Adam the writer and Adam the character was also a tricky one. “It was always ‘he’ instead of ‘me’ when I spoke to producers,” he explains, “to give myself the necessary distance, as well as not to implode during the many discussions about how unsympathetic he is – I ben – everywhere. The truth is that he started out like me in every way, and as the writing progressed he became his own person, albeit one who constantly says and does things that I did in my actual life.”
Alderton also struggled with ambivalent feelings toward her character. “I’m much more strict with Maggie than the other creatives on the show,” she admits. “I’ll say, ‘I think Maggie is too unsympathetic here,’ or ‘I don’t understand why she’s doing this.’ And it’s obvious because I recognize myself in her, and we’re our harshest critics, as the cliché goes. But I also have to be honest about how much the defensive self-preservation is. I try to make her a tastier version of me.”
Sometimes autobiographical shows can even outlast the characters whose experiences are central. Call the Midwife is an adaptation of author Jennifer Worth’s memoir, but when Jessica Raine, who played the lead role of Jenny, announced she wanted to leave the series, the character was written out, but the story continued.
For showrunner Heidi Thomas, who has delivered more than 80 episodes (with at least two more series confirmed), losing her star was a blessing in disguise. “I realized the drama could open up and expand,” she tells me, “because we would have more time to spend with our other characters.” Having used up most of the material in the books by the end of season one, Thomas had already begun to supplement Worth’s stories with reports submitted by the show’s legions of fans from the nursing and midwifery professions. .
Worth herself unfortunately never got the chance to see herself on screen since she passed away during the show’s development period, and Thomas attended her funeral the week before filming began. “There was a lot of trust between us, there was friendship and I must say there was love,” she recalls. After her death, all storylines related to the character were sent to her family for approval. “They had the right to read and comment on them,” Thomas explains, “because I loved and respected Jennifer and didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t relevant to her experience.”
Even after Raine left the series, Thomas Vanessa retained Redgrave as the narrator, reasoning that since Worth kept in touch with the nuns she had worked with until the end of her life, she could continue to tell their stories. In the 2014 Christmas special, she even put Redgrave on screen as the old Jenny, wearing some of Worth’s jewelry supplied by her daughters. “It was a way of keeping Jennifer alive,” she tells me.
For any long-running series, change is a means of survival, and in the case of shows based on true stories, this generally means an increasingly loose relationship with the source material. This Is Going to Hurt was a publishing phenomenon, with a record 52 weeks on the charts and over 2.5 million copies. Kay’s one-man show based on the book sold out across the UK. Does he expect the TV show to run and run?
The answer, surprisingly, seems to be a firm no. “I wrote it as a standalone series, with a beginning, middle, and end,” he tells me. “Never say never, but at the same time probably never.”