The Soul of the Story: An Interview with 'The Essex Serpent' Writer and Executive Producer Anna Symon
By Sadie Dean • June 22, 2022
Anna Symon speaks with Script about the adaptation process, the amount of research she and the writer's room conducted, charting character arcs, and she share's invaluable advice for writers interested in adapting a book into a screenplay.
“The Essex Serpent” follows London widow Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) who moves to Essex to investigate reports of a mythical serpent. She forms a surprising bond of science and skepticism with the local pastor (Tom Hiddleston), but when tragedy strikes, locals accuse her of attracting the creature.
The Essex Serpent is a show that tonally hooks you in immediately within the first ten minutes of screen time. This is thanks to the creative force behind the scenes and on-screen. The mini-series is adapted by Anna Symon from Sarah Perry's award-winning novel of the same name. Anna has a way of pulling the essence from source material to the small screen and capturing your attention, quite effortlessly.
I had the grand pleasure of speaking with Anna about the adaptation process, the amount of research she and the writer's room conducted, charting character arcs, and she share's invaluable advice for writers interested in adapting a book into a screenplay.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: When did this book come across your desk, and what was the creative discussion around adapting the book as a mini-series?
Anna Symon: I actually already read the book and I absolutely loved it. The book was a really big hit in the UK, when it came out. It won quite a lot of awards. So, I'd actually read it just for fun. [laughs] And thought it was absolutely incredible. And so, when the opportunity came along, when the production company approached me, I was so excited to get involved. And Clio [Barnard] the director was already attached, and I was a huge fan of her work. So yeah, we sort of set to it. It was quite a tricky one to adapt, because a lot of the story is about whether the serpent exists or not. And obviously, in the novel, you can kind of play with that ambiguity much more easily than you can on-screen. So that was one of the challenges of adapting it. Another one being that it was such a well-loved book in the UK, so people have very sort of particular ideas about who Cora was and who she wasn't.
Sadie: When approaching writing a pilot episode, how do you know what information to omit or include from the source material?
Anna: Yeah, I think the pilots always the hardest episode to write whether it's an original or an adaptation. I think with an adaptation there's kind of two ways that I approach it in a kind of twin track approach; I do something that's quite sort of scientific and linear logic. And I do literally split the book up, sometimes I've literally just cut the book up into or the manuscripts up into chapters, in a very kind of broad-brush way and kind of like worked out, how many episodes will this run to? Like if I just completely did it in a chronological way, as it's told in the book. And at the same time, I think more importantly, I'm looking at, what is the soul of this story? What is the guts of it? What is it about this story that is particular? With The Essex Serpent, obviously, it's the atmosphere of Essex and the marshes in that world was so important. So, we wanted to start the story in Essex even though in the book, it actually starts in London and enter the story through Dr. Luke Garrett. And you don't get to Essex for a while. But we wanted to kind of bring the audience into that world straightaway and kind of give them that sense of atmosphere and mystery.
I think you want to give the audience very particular clues about what the story is going to be. And I think The Essex Serpent is also an unusual book in that the title doesn't massively reflect what the story is going to turn out to be about, because it's actually more about human relationships than it is about a monster story. We also had to set up a lot of that in the first episode. And it would have been tempting to just stick with the mystery and to be more heightened with that. But then I think we would have led the audience into feeling maybe a bit robbed [laughs] when they kind of came back and they're like, 'Oh, this is actually a love story. And it's actually about some interesting things that were going on in the 1890s.' So yeah, we had to cover a lot of ground in that episode to let the audience know this is going to be set in Essex. And it's going to be mysterious, but it's also going to be about these incredible characters that Sarah Perry created.
Sadie: How much research did you and your writer’s room conduct before writing and was Sarah also there as an additional resource during that process?
Anna: We did a mini room. I had some writers who wrote some of the episodes. And so, we sat down literally just before our first lockdown - we did that in person in 2020. But then, Sarah had sort of given us full permission generously, she was very hands-off in that way. And then, of course, at the time, when I wanted to probably have more contact with her, we had all these bloody lockdowns, so we couldn't meet in person - so we did Zooms. [laughs] And she's a lovely person, and she loved coming to set and she was always there as a resource.
In terms of what was going on in the world at that time, I did read a lot of books about surgery, about social housing, which is one of the strands funnily enough was Cora's sort of maid is a very ardent socialist and is always on a campaign trail. So, I looked into that. I did a lot of research. And then it was kind of balancing that actually this is fiction and Cora is a character that is very much of her time, in terms of the inventions that were happening at that time that she was so interested in and the paleontology. But she is also a fictional character. So, at the end of the day, that was my guiding star in terms of putting those characters on the screen.
[Setting a Thematic Anchor with ‘Dopesick’ Creator Danny Strong]
Sadie: She's such a strong character, both her and Will. Her character and arc are seemingly of her time but also reflect our current social climate. This is then juxtaposed against Will’s character who is a man of God – but their arcs are cohesively running parallel. How did you approach adapting those two arcs for this show?
Anna: In the writer's room, we did plot out their character arcs. And we did add some scenes, particularly in the second half of the series, when Cora returns to London, Will comes to London anyway in the story, but we actually arranged a meeting that isn't in the book, because we really wanted to fully explore their relationship. And in the book, again, you can get away with a lot of letters, we didn't want to have lots of scenes of them reading letters from each other. There are a couple when it was impossible to do it otherwise. I included more scenes between them to make sure those character arcs were really singing.
What's interesting about them is that they're both, as you say, representative of views of their time, Cora, would be the kind of outlier and the kind of rebel in the sense that she is a woman of very strongly held beliefs, she doesn't go to church, which would have been unusual at the time. And Will, although he is a vicar, or pastor, and traditional, in that sense, and is quite open-minded in his views. So, it was a really interesting kind of clash of beliefs between them. And also, a friendship, and also a growing attraction that sort of continues throughout the series, which in its own way, is quite radical. And I think, maybe will surprise people as they carry on watching it.
Sadie: What kind of stories or themes are you interested in exploring yourself?
Anna: I do like to write things that I feel have something to say. And I feel like The Essex Serpent, although it's period and although it's an adaptation and not my original work, it definitely has something to say about the world around us, particularly in terms of how we deal with fear and outsiders. And the way that we try and sort of put certainty on things and maybe try and resolve things sometimes in the wrong way. If it's an adaptation, I've got to be attracted to what the piece is trying to say underneath. And it must have a good story as well.
In terms of my original work, I do really enjoy relationship dramas with women at the center. I'm writing something at the moment which I'm hoping is about to be greenlit, which has got a woman at the center of it, whose life has not gone according to plan. And we see her get involved in a very unusual relationship as a result of that. And I guess those are the kinds of stories I'm attracted to - having interesting people at the heart of them who go, like ordinary people, but who go on extraordinary journeys. But I think everything I do has to have a very strong story. When I'm watching stuff, I want to really feel like I'm being pulled along. I like to feel like we're on a decent journey.
Sadie: For those adapting a book into a screenplay, what is something a writer should be open to creatively or during the collaboration process with the author if that opportunity arises?
Anna: In the normal case where the producers have optioned the material, and then they're looking for a writer, which is when you come on board, I think it's important to ask the producers what kind of deal they've done with the writer of the source material, because you need to know upfront if there are particular things that the author wants, honored, or if they've got any kind of editorial input. That's important, just to be clear on that. And normally you have completely free rein. But just to be clear, it's good to know. [laughs] And I think after that, it's about making sure you've got a connection with material, because if you don't, you won't write a good adaptation.
And then I being really honest with the writer, when you meet them about things that you think won't translate to screen, or will translate very well to screen. In my experience, writers that I've worked with, are normally very open to the idea of things being changed. They may have one or two things that they just absolutely love, and really don't need to change. They're not screenwriters, and I think they understand that it's a different medium. And I think if you're transparent about it, there's no reason why it can't be a very productive relationship.
Ultimately, your responsibility has to be to the drama, rather than to the novelist. So, I think you tell them that as well, they understand that you're trying to do the best job you can. And decisions that you make aren't because you don't like things in the book, because they work in the book, you wouldn't take the project on if you thought it wasn't a great book, but you just think that on-screen, there are so many different things you might change. Like, there are too many characters or that it will make more sense to follow one line of story longer than others or stay in different points of view. There are so many things that you might look at. But I just think being really honest about why you're making those decisions. And get the producers to take you out for a really nice lunch. [laughs]
The Essex Serpent now streaming on Apple TV+.