BBC Radio 4 have just started a brand new radio adaptation of Robert Graves' I, Claudius, confusingly but brilliantly starring Derek Jacobi as Augustus. It co-stars Harriet Walter as Livia, who has just the right maliciously dripping tones for Graves' interpretation of Livia as poison-tongued serial muderess, and Tim McInnerny as Tiberius, a gruffer, more evil Captain Darling. Claudius is played by Tom Goodman-Hill, who is very good but sounds unnervingly like the young Derek Jacobi. Comparisons to the TV series are somewhat unfair, since this is a fresh adaptation of the novel and should be judged on its own merits, but I'm afraid they are also inevitable, and I'm going to proceed to compare them directly, repeatedly, for the next six weeks!
(My posts on the television series also cover the plot in detail, so I won't describe the plot too much here).
The television adaptation usually dispensed with Claudius' famous stammer for the narrative sections, since these are written, not spoken. Interestingly, the radio series chooses to include the stammer at all times, albeit in a milder form for the narration. There are advantages to this, since, without being able to see Claudius writing, hearing him speak as if in an interview or conversation is more effective and easier to follow. On the other hand, aside from slowing down the narration a bit, it does make it less clear when Claudius is writing and when he is speaking, which may become awkward later.
The Sibyl's prophecy which opens the book is well done. One of the conceits of the book is that her prophecy is genuine, and this interpretation walks a fine line between depicting her state of ecstasy through stilted delivery, but also giving it a strange, unearthly echo which could be an ancient special effect, or could be a sign of something genuinely spooky going on.
After the Sibyl's scene we get into the main flashback and the story proper. The series has chosen an interesting selection of incidents to highlight. It goes back much further than the television adaptation did, showing us Livia's divorce from her first husband and going into much more detail concerning her marital relationship with Augustus, even referring briefly to the civil war between Augustus and Antony which is already over by the time the television adaptation kicks in. Like the source novel, the radio adaptation embraces Suetonius' rather salacious, gossipy suggestion that the reason Augustus and Livia had no children together was because Augustus couldn't get it up for her, which is, of course, possible, but it seems to me there are other equally, even more likely, possibilities (they may have married for reasons not relating to wanting to sleep together, or they may have had perfecty healthy marital relations and just not been a good match, fertility-wise).
On the other hand, the series then skips ahead in leaps and bounds and covers two to three hours of TV material in 45 minutes (though this is, of course, necessary in a six-hour radio adaptation). Marcellus is introduced and killed in the same sentence and before half an hour has passed we've reached Drusus' death and Claudius' youth. Julia is missing a son, as well. None of the missing or skimmed over scenes are desperately missed, though there is a bit of an overall effect of temporal whiplash simply from moving through so many years so quickly. This adaptation does, however, include some really nice scenes from the novel which didn't make it onto the TV, especially Augustus' cautious questioning concerning Julia's fate after her banishment - though Livia's use of a powerful aphrodisiac to drive Julia to her bad behaviour in the first place is positively mythical.
We also hear a lot more scenes from the novel which describe Claudius' youth and his own private life, his education and childhood friends. This, I think, is the key to the differences in the adaptations. The TV series was a massive, epic production with a huge cast of theatrical big-hitters all doing their thing and taking thirteen hours to tell all their stories. The radio series has no less impressive a cast, but quite apart from having only six hours to tell its story, because radio is not a medium that lends itself to large, epic casts and sprawling stories, it needs to tell a more intimate tale. So the radio series focuses itself as much as possible on Claudius himself and on his personal story, telling as much of everyone else's story as is necessary but always bringing it back to the person of Claudius. This is an effective strategy, and its nice to hear so much of the detail of Claudius' childhood, especially his tragic betrothal to a girl called Camilla and the full horror of his later betrothal to his wife Urgulanilla.
As with almost all BBC adaptations, this is extremely faithful to its source material (BBC adaptations cut all sorts of things for time, but very rarely make substantial changes to the scenes they do include). It's a highly enjoyable adaptation and the actors are uniformly excellent. This first episode perhaps condenses a little too much into one short hour, and might have benefitted from following the TV adaptation's example and picking a slightly later starting point, but it isn't a huge problem, and future episodes will be able to cover Claudius' youth and adulthood in more detail.