Dirk Maggs’ fixation with radio began in the 1960s. It was also when he realised the potency of sound in storytelling and its potential to be both the story and the story teller. Years later, he not just did something on similar lines but also expanded the known boundaries.
Often referred to as the father of audiobook adaptations, Maggs is known for adapting graphic novels, movies into audiobooks. One of his most enduring achievements and the recurrent question he is asked continues to be being handpicked by Douglas Adams to adapt the classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series for radio. Maggs maintains he had no idea: “It was a complete bolt from the blue.” The backstory here is that Douglas was supremely impressed with Maggs’ work at the BBC which included making audio movies featuring DC Comics’ Superman and Batman.
He has known Neil Gaiman for 30 years and adapted Neverwhere and Stardust. Most recently, he is all set to bring an exclusive audio adaptation of Sandman along with Audible and the cast will be led by Riz Ahmed, Justin Vivian Bond, Arthur Darvill, Kat Dennings as Death, Taron Egerton, William Hope, Josie Lawrence, Miriam Margolyes, Samantha Morton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, and Michael Sheen as Lucifer.
In an interview with indianexpress.com, Maggs talks about this experience as well as the importance of the audio medium for a storyteller, Douglas Adams and the author whose work he dreams of adapting: Shakespeare.
When did your interest in radio begin?
I was a child of the 1960s, and back in those days at Sunday lunchtime in the United Kingdom the BBC would play comedy programmes on the radio. I grew to love many of them including classics like “Round The Horne” which was both very funny and also full of sketches based in exciting and exotic locations, all created in sound, but which to my imagination were perfectly vivid as visual images. That was very impressive to me.
Do you find the audio medium more freeing as a storyteller than visual medium?
I don’t think one needs actual pictures to create pictures in someone’s mind. One can move from depicting galaxies colliding to the inside of a termite nest inside the same narrative. It really is that flexible. And it’s very inexpensive compared to creating those effects on a screen. In fact I find the lack of a camera crew, lighting, make up, wardrobe and so on liberating — it means that working with actors one can immediately get to the meat of what one is trying to do.
While adapting a novel into a radio series for a classic like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, how do you ensure not diluting the original voice as well making your own voice heard?
In adapting works by Douglas Adams or by Neil Gaiman, I’m always aware that I am a spokesperson for the author – that I cannot stray too far from the template they have established in the book. In fact, I despair sometimes watching movies or TV shows where the writers have gone away from the source material and started inventing their own stories. It seems to me the important thing is to represent the authors work as faithfully as possible, and in doing so to help create a new audience for their work. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was particularly challenging because Douglas had died and I had sometimes to imagine what he would say to a particular question about plot or characterisation. With Neil Gaiman it’s a lot easier. For a start he still alive, and secondly he is very happy to be an active part of the process and to help me make the Sandman as close to the original work as possible
You were handpicked by Douglas Adams as an adaptor. Did that entail shouldering more responsibility?
I had no inkling that Douglas would picked me to ring back Hitchhikers to its original home, radio. It was a complete bolt from the blue. That said, I was happy to try and do justice to his faith in me. We had several conversations about how the work might be adapted and so I was happy to go into the process knowing that I had a handle on things. The problem arose after Douglas tragically died. Then I had to summon a sort of virtual Douglas in my mind, and work with that mental image of him and the things he might say in order to complete the whole trilogy of five.
Do you think listening to a story can be more effective than reading one?
It’s interesting to see the feedback we get from listeners who have enjoyed stories told in sound. They have been totally immersed in the world of a book or a graphic novel without actually having to read it. From that feedback it seems clear that we can stand separately in our own right as a storytelling form in the visual sense. After I adapted Douglas’s Dirk Gently novels, I was told that it helped several people understand the rather complicated plot better than they did when they read the book, which made me very happy, because I found difficulty understanding it myself!
When you read a book which you might adapt, how do you identify spaces which will be filled by sound later in the narrative? How do you go about creating realism through sound?
It’s a constant battle to tell stories with pictures in sound without seeming to over-describe things. When a character says “the gun in my hand is loaded“, it’s a sort of cliche that they are both describing what they are doing and at the same time holding up realistic dialogue to do so. I prefer to find ways around that which involve subtle sound effects – a pistol being cocked perhaps or a reaction from another character – which suggests that something shocking is happening. Either way, if it comes to the crunch, a gunshot of its own accord is usually enough evidence that there is a gun in the room and that it has been used!
You have worked extensively in superhero stories as well as science fiction. What draws you to these genres?
I was fascinated by the idea that one could create cinematic sound without needing cinematic pictures. It involves the layering of sound effects and music with a good script and a talented cast. Comic books lent themselves stylistically very well to this art form. A comic book traditionally consists of a series of pages which end in cliffhangers of one sort or another, which one has to turn over to find out what happens. It wasn’t a big stretch to then translate that sensibility into audio and script writing – after all it is pretty much what movies do. I loved comics as a kid, so it wasn’t really hard work in that respect. What I didn’t know, was that when I joined the BBC there would be an opportunity to actually make a reality of my childhood dreams!
You have adapted Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and now The Sandman. Talk to us a bit more about The Sandman and how that process came about?
Neil is an absolutely hands-on kind of person. We have known each other for nearly 30 years and I’ve been trying to make the Sandman happen as a project for almost that long. When finally it became possible on Audible I knew that Neil would want to be involved and I welcomed the opportunity. We get on very well together almost like old school friends, so it’s not hard work at all.
While making Batman and Superman titles for BBC radio I had to talk to DC Comic’s New York office regularly. Often this was to establish that I wasn’t making mistakes in my work, sometimes it was to talk about contracts, but most of the time it was just to have a chat. I made great friends at DC including particularly a lady called Phyllis Hume who was extremely fun to talk to and very well informed person. It was Phyllis who asked me if I’d heard of “an English guy called Gaiman who is writing very interesting graphic novels for DC”. (This was in around 1989.) I said no, and the next thing I knew, she had sent me a box of Sandman books to read. As soon as I started reading I was hooked.
Is there any particular genre or an author whose work you want to adapt?
There are one or two areas I’d like to work in – I’d love to do a Shakespeare play for example. The main thing is, I have been incredibly lucky to work with authors of the stature of Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams and all the amazing comic book writers at DC over the last 30 or 40 years. It has been an immense privilege and I really feel that my bucket list must be full up by now! But of course as human beings we always have ambitions to do more and there are one or two subjects and people I’d yet like to work with. So I’m not giving up hope just yet that I have more to offer.
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