When novelist and screenwriter Deborah Moggach was approached to adapt Anne Frank’s diary for a BBC drama series, she was daunted by the idea.
The diary — written before and during the two years that Frank and her family were in hiding from the Nazis in a house in Amsterdam — has already been adapted and performed a number of times on stage and on screen, so Moggach realised she had to come up with something fresh. And she had the difficult job of extrapolating conversations from the text which might well never have happened.
In one way her task was made easier: “We were very privileged to be able to use the actual text of the diary itself [rather than an edited version], which is rare for an adaptation,” says the London-based writer.
“So I took a lot from that. Of course, Anne writes so well — far better than I could done it. But I had to invent conversations for the sake of the story. For example I had Anne’s sister, Margot, who is a quiet presence in the book, tell Anne: ‘It’s difficult for me too.’ Whether she actually ever said that, I don’t know.”
Moggach, who has written 16 novels as well as a recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, wanted her version of the diary be the most realistic yet to be screened.
“This is perhaps the most faithful. Anne could be annoying and she is certainly not sanctified in this adaptation. The way it was shot helped to develop the feeling of claustrophobia. The annexe was rebuilt in the studio without missing walls to make life easy for the camera crew, so everyone had to squeeze in to film, day after day. We wanted somehow to show the smells of the house — all those bodily functions at close quarters — and we certainly did not want Anne to appear as this angelic little creature.”
Like most teenagers of her own and successive generations, Moggach had read the diary and associated with Frank. She finds it easy to see why the book is such an enduring favourite.
“It is so iconic mainly because Anne was such a normal teenager in such an abnormal situation. She changes so much from beginning to end. In the beginning, she’s 13, she’s stroppy, obsessed with boys and rebellious. As the months go by she deepens tremendously and changes. She lives an intense life and ends up a much more profound person.”
Moggach also needed to address the problem of the way the diary presented the other characters through Frank’s eyes.
“They all had their own stories and we know that the other members of the house were not exactly as she described them. For example, Anne described the dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, as an ugly old man. Actually, he was a very handsome, athletic man of 54 — and incredibly lonely as the only single man in the house. We show reaction shots that Anne herself might not have seen, so at least the viewer can see the thoughts of everybody else.”
Ellie Kendrick, the 18-year-old actress who plays the role of Anne in the series, says she was elated to get the part after months of auditions, but felt a wave of terror when she fully realised the challenge facing her.
“When one acts it is usual to put something of yourself into a part but with Anne Frank I couldn’t because she was a real person. Luckily, the diary itself was a great guide for me —- it told me everything I needed to know about what Anne was thinking and feeling.”
Moggach’s script also made her life easier. “She captured Anne’s vivaciousness and love of life. Anne was really intelligent and very thoughtful about life but she was also a teenager like me.”
Moggach, who has visited schools and prisons with the Anne Frank Trust to talk about the programme and its subject, confirms that there is as much interest in the diary now as there ever was. “She was special, and the diary is so rich and complicated and beautiful. People sometimes forget that Anne Frank is not a remote historical figure. If she survived she would only be 79 now.”