A Different Kind of “Sugar Rush”

Kim and Sugar on the pier

I’ve never made any bones about hating Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush. It’s a master class on how not to write a novel: characters that struggle to be even two-dimensional, an unoriginal and ultimately depressing plot, and prose that manages to be both shallow and tortured at the same time.

But when I heard Britain’s Channel 4 was creating a 10-episode series based on the book, I was optimistic; a television adaptation might salvage something from the wreckage. So now that it’s finally here and a few episodes along (the first episode aired June 7), how does the dramatization shape up in comparison to the book?

Initially, I wondered how on earth were they going to make ten 40-minute episodes out of such a slight book, especially when you consider that the BBC squeezed the densely plotted, 500-plus page Fingersmith into only three hours. The answer appears to lie in the “based on the novel by Julie Burchill” caption that pops up in the title credits–that’s “based on” in the same way Little House on the Prairie was “based on the novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Take the characters, setting and basic premise and then do something else with it entirely.

In the case of Sugar Rush, that wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, it was a very good idea indeed.

The setting remains the same: Brighton, an English seaside town long associated with amusement arcades, dirty weekends and homosexuality. The characters and basic premise remain more or less the same: middle-class Kim (Olivia Hallinan) is madly in lust, bordering on love, with her new best friend, boy-crazy Maria “Sugar” Sweet (Lenora Crichlow).

Channel 4 is upfront about the show’s lesbian content in its official description:

Sugar Rush explores the world of Kim and her earth-shattering lust for the gorgeous and sassy Maria Sweet, otherwise known as Sugar. And if Sugar wasn’t enough to blow Kim’s mind, there’s also her dysfunctional, embarrassing family – a mini-freak for a brother, an obsessively house-proud dad and a mum who’s behaving as if she’s the one who’s 15 years old. Each episode is a different journey inside Kim’s world as her wry observations take us into the mind of a screwed up, loved up, lustful adolescent experiencing the bright lights of Brighton and the rush of forbidden love for the first time.

Kim lives with her father (Robert Lumsden) and little brother, Matt (Kurtis O’Brien) but also her mother, Stella (Sara Stewart), which is a departure from the novel. Stella is still a monster of breathtaking self-absorption, but having her at home (for the time being) enhances the drama: it gives another layer to Kim’s increasing complicated life.

And that is the first big plus: these are characters it’s possible to care about. This is a more well-rounded Kim, one who might seem like a confident teenager but is wracked by doubt, terrified that her parents will split up, and doesn’t know what the hell to do about her feelings for Sugar. And Sugar herself is so much more than her literary equivalent; she genuinely cares for her friend.

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