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Ted Hughes: Adaptations for the stage and screen

A look at the writer's legacy across opera and beyond.

By Lottie Butler (Former Assistant Content Producer (News and Social Media))

6 November 2013 at 3.06pm | Comment on this article

Ted Hughes was one of the twentieth century's most innovative poets and children's writers. He wrote more than 90 books, won numerous prizes and fellowships and was appointed Poet Laureate in 1984. Julian Philips's How the Whale Became, a Royal Opera commission inspired by Ted Hughes's Creation Tales, had its world premiere in December 2013, and is just one of Hughes's works adapted for stage and screen:

The Iron Man

The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights (also known as The Iron Giant) is perhaps Ted Hughes’s best-known novel. Half fairy-tale, half science-fiction, the story tells of a mysterious metal giant who eats only metal, and soon brings destruction to a farming community by feasting on their farmers' equipment. However, he is befriended by a boy called Hogarth who helps him to survive. The story not only reflects on the destruction of the environment and the age of technology,  but also themes of friendship and loyalty.

In 1989, The Who guitarist Pete Townshend released a rock opera adaptation of the story, entitled The Iron Man: A Musical. He cast himself,  Roger DaltreyNina Simone and John Lee Hooker in the lead roles. The story was subsequently adapted for the screen in the animated adventure The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird (The Simpsons, The Incredibles) with Townshend as executive producer. Charmingly retro, the film was a huge success on its release in 1999 and starred Jennifer Aniston as the voice of Hogarth’s mum and Vin Diesel as the Iron Giant.


Crow, considered by Hughes to be his masterpiece, was one of his darkest and most controversial works and its publication was a pivotal moment in Hughes’s career. Although originally conceived as an epic folk-tale, Crow was first published as a compendium of poems in 1970, a volume that evolved each time it was re-printed. Crow, the part-bird part-human protagonist, exists in an apocalyptic world and is in search of his creator. The poetry is raw and jagged with no linear narrative, and explores life, death, survival and God through the subversive and ambiguous main character.

The Handspring Puppet Company UK, a British company of puppeteers trained by the South African masters behind National Theatre blockbuster War Horse, staged a dance theatre adaptation of Crow as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012. The production involved a giant bird figure with an enormous, feathered head and a 12ft wing-span that required five puppeteers to manipulate it. Another puppet depicted a part-crow, part-human anatomy: the head of a bird, a partially human body and crow-shaped feet. Known as the ‘Crow Man’, the construction took sculptors over four weeks to create. Directed by Mervyn Miller, with choreography by Ben Duke of Lost Dog DanceCrow blended live poetry, puppetry and modern dance.

How the Whale Became

Imaginative, humourous and lyrical, Ted Hughes's collection of short stories The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales explore how the world and the creatures in it came into being. Hughes is a master of animal imagery, and uses the animals to show human traits and emotions. His characters range from the Polar Bear, who is so obsessed with her beautiful white fur that she can only live in a landscape surrounded by her own reflection, to the Hare, who fell in love with the moon and became a fast runner to chase her over the hills and grew long ears to listen to her whispers.

In How the Whale Became, the Whale begins life as a Whale-Wort: he grows up alongside the carrots in God’s vegetable patch, until he grows too large and is banished to the sea. The story has inspired the opera by Julian Philips with a libretto by Edward Kemp. Directed by Natalie Abrahami (Associate Director of the Young Vic), the opera transforms the stage into a magical creative world, exploring why whales are so huge, why elephants are so wise and why polar bears have white coats. The cast perform a number of roles each, including the Whale, the Polar Bear and the Peacock.

What is your favourite work by Ted Hughes, and which of his works would you love to adapt for the stage?

How the Whale Became ran from 3 December 2013 - 4 January 2013.

The production was generously supported by the Taylor Family Foundation, Mrs Lily Safra, The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund, The Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson Foundation and Britten-Pears Foundation.

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