Money, money, money… it isn’t funny

The BBC’s adaptation of Martin Amis’s classic 1984 novel has none of the book’s zing, insight or fast satire.

Emily Hill

Topics Books

Last season, the BBC’s drama output seemed to have wandered straight out of commissioning to get hopelessly lost amongst the crinolines of the costume department.

An execrable, ninety-fifth rethink of Jane Austen’s Emma was succeeded by yet another trip to Cranford, followed by a new series of Lark Rise to Candleford. So far, so many bonnets. But now BBC2 has gone in quite another direction. The latest literary adaptation to hit the small screen comes straight out of the twentieth century – with the fags and booze and porn sleaze-a-thon that is Martin Amis’s brilliant 1984 novel, Money.

Set in 1981, when greed was good and Princess Di was still a virgin, Money is the ‘suicide note’ of John Self, an overweight, chauvinistic, chain-smoking director of risqué commercials who goes to New York to shoot his first feature film with a producer called Fielding Goodney. He doesn’t sleep, he blacks out. He doesn’t eat, he gorges. He is Amis’s ‘Loadsa Money’ yob, and he could be just a revolting caricature of the new-moneyed working classes by a thoroughly middle-class writer, if it wasn’t for the fact that his thoughts are so beautifully written, the language is so artfully crafted, and that the reader ends up actually loving John Self.

Self thinks: ‘You hate me, don’t you. Yes you do. Because I’m the new kind, the kind who has money but can never use it for anything but ugliness. To which I say: You never let us in, not really. You might have thought you let us in, but you never did. You just gave us some money.’

Aside from adapting, say, Finnegans Wake or Gravity’s Rainbow, the BBC really couldn’t have chosen a trickier prospect. Not only is Amis’s postmodernist masterpiece so in love with its own language that the plot isn’t really the point – it also features Martin Amis himself as a key character. In Money, Mart has to be drafted in to explain the giant con enacted on Self, to make clear all the literary allusions. ‘“I’ve been thinking about your little adventure in New York”, [Martin] said, as his knight scuttled back to the second rank. “I think I’ve got it all worked out. Do you want to hear my theory?”’ The text plays around with Roland Barthes’s notion of the ‘Death of the Author’ to the extent that the denouement partly hinges on the use of a semi-colon.

Unfortunately, in the first part of BBC2’s Money – which kicks off this weekend – Amis has not so far shambled on set to make a cameo, replete with a 1980s rug (Mart-slang for hairdo), the same old roll-up still stapled to his bottom lip, and drawling his lines in that inimitable way he has, like a drunk gargling ash. So far, Money is a disappointment – because it doesn’t bear a great deal of relation to the book, even though it ticks off the main setpieces. Self fails at tennis. Self struggles to deal with movie stars. Self watches porn whilst eating junk food in his underpants. But it isn’t these things that make the book worth adapting.

You would need an intimate eye for the real details to make an adaptation of Money work – and a big, big budget. The fact that Self drinks in a pub called The Shakespeare (not The Queen’s Head, as in this BBC version), that he drives a Fiasco while Mart himself has an Iago, and that New York cabbies career about in Tomahawks – all of this is part of the zing of the text. Amis created a whole, fast, satirical world a beat off our own, through his web of allusions. The story isn’t that funny if you just transcribe the events of the novel – as this adaptation does. Nick Frost makes a completely unappealing John Self. He’s fat and he looks funny when he runs.

So the BBC’s Money isn’t worth a great deal but big dues must be given to the Beeb for trying out a modern adaptation. Perhaps it could dust off a few new novels with a less intricate texture, a little less complicated to translate from text to screen. Reading Money may be eye-opening. Watching it, on this evidence, seems about as revelatory of modern literature as having another airing of Cranford.

Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard and is also spiked’s columnist on celebrity culture. Visit her personal website here.

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