From Page To Screen

Adapting The Poison Tree

When The Poison Tree was commissioned by STV, one very famous author cornered me at a party and feverishly told me not to let anyone near it – that the television company would destroy my precious novel forever. This attitude bewildered me. If I wanted complete control over my work, I would never publish it in the first place. Every new reader breathes new life into a book and adaptation seems to me like a natural stage of that process.


For all that, I was a little nervous. This is my book: for a year, every little comma was under my control. Now I was about to hand it over to an entire team of people.

The novel is about Karen Clarke, a young mother whose partner, Rex, has just been released from prison after a long stretch. In the novel, we learn why and how over a series of extended flashbacks to the summer of 1997, when Karen, Rex and his younger sister Biba lived in an intense, isolated triangle in the siblings’ crumbling Highgate home. The couple try to build a new life with their daughter Alice (and without Biba), but it’s clear that someone knows their secret.

It was adapted for television by Emilia di Giralomo, who’s best known for her work as lead writer and executive producer on Law and Order: UK. Like me, she writes twisting, surprising narratives, but LO:UK is much pacier than my fiction, with huge issues and stories condensed into one-hour timeslots, and I wondered how she would translate my slow-burning book for the screen. From the first few pages of Emilia’s script, I understood not to me to judge the book in terms of my novel but as a piece of work in its own right. And in those terms, I think it’s hugely successful. While the screenplay is true to the spirit of my novel, it was fascinating to note the places where entire chapters can be summed up in a single clever line of dialogue, and where new storylines have been added to make the book work for a television audience.

The focus has been reversed so that instead of unfolding in flashback, the present-day action, where Rex has been released from prison and Karen knows that her family are under threat, is now the driving force. Entire characters and sub-plots have been culled, and there are a couple of major storyline changes. Perhaps this is what my author friend meant by ruining the book but actually, I quite like it. I hope it means that readers of the novel can enjoy the drama with a genuine sense of suspense, and that anyone who reads the book after watching the television programme is still in for a few surprises.

Perhaps I’d have liked to linger a little longer in the summer of 1999, to delve a little deeper into the beginning of Karen’s friendship with Biba and to see more of the slow seduction between her and Rex. But I know that that would have compromised the thriller that STV wanted to make, and it’s far more important that the piece works its own right than that my authorial proclivities are served.

The only other criticisms I have are tiny; a deliberate hairline fracture in my plot is a crack on-screen that I wonder if viewers will even register. And the Highgate mansion is not as derelict as I envisaged it. Property porn seems to be the sine qua non of recent ITV dramas and The Poison Tree is no exception.

In many places, I think my novel has actually been improved upon. As the present-day plot has been expanded, Karen’s home has relocated from my original (and anonymous) Suffolk setting to a lone clapboard cottage in the shade of the nuclear reactor on Dungeness beach in Kent. It’s a bleakly beautiful place, enough to instil agoraphobia in the most intrepid explorer. It makes for stunning photography, and I love the contrast between the net that is slowly closing in around Karen and the wide open space she lives in.

While some of my supporting characters didn’t make the cut, others have developed in ways that have completely delighted me. Alice, Rex and Karen’s daughter, has had a couple of years added to her age and Emilia has written her exactly as I would have developed her; a sparky but vulnerable pre-teen, played to perfection by the brilliant Hebe Johnson, who I’m sure will have her name engraved on a Bafta before the decade is out.

I think I’ve been exceptionally lucky with all the cast. I was delighted when I heard that Ophelia Lovibond had been cast as Biba; she is my character to the life, capturing not only her infectious, unhinged charm but also the darkness that underpins it. I’m particularly pleased with her performance in the scenes that take place after the pivotal event at the end of Episode One, when the party is over forever.

The other two leads – MyAnna Buring as Karen, and Matthew Goode as Rex – were more surprising. In my version of the story, Karen and Rex are both good-looking, but in an acquired-taste sort of way. I’m afraid I thought the actors might be a bit too gorgeous to convince as the awkward, haunted couple. Again, my doubts were unfounded; from the first moment I saw them in character, at a read-through in a draughty church hall in Islington, I felt that I was eavesdropping on a private conversation. My confidence in them only grew after watching them on location in Highgate. (In fact, the only jarring thing about the set visit was the realisation that I’d always seen the novel, which is written in the first person, entirely through Karen’s eyes, gonzo-style – almost like the way Peep Show is filmed.)

Matthew might not be as undernourished and geeky as Rex was in my imagination, but his steely determination to protect his sister shines through the gaps between his lines. (He does a very good brooding silence). MyAnna is barely off-screen throughout and is completely compelling in every scene, nailing every stage of . I Karen’s development from ingénue to hedonist to conspirator to mother to… well, you’ll have to watch to find out just what she becomes. She more than does my Karen justice; she makes her her own. Recently at a literary festival I read aloud a passage from The Poison Tree and was surprised and thrilled to find myself picturing MyAnna and Matthew in a scene between Karen and Rex. I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay them.

My book is still on the shelf, just as I wrote it, not a comma out of place. I don’t expect the drama to replace it, and it never could. But I think they make wonderful companions.



Copyright © Erin Kelly 2019