Writer Ian McEwan has hit out at Hollywood, branding its film industry as “bad behaviour on a neon scale”.
The novelist joked that he had been “impressed” and almost “charmed” by the treatment he received across the pond when trying to make films in the early days of his career.
Known for penning the books behind Atonement and The Child In Time, he explained: “Lots of British novelists think they can go and transform Hollywood by thinking they can write something deeply profound and serious, and at the same time make a lot of money, and it never works.
“I had three years of being an A-list writer – I travelled across to the States in the very front of the plane – then got interestingly betrayed or let down or lied to. You see bad behaviour on a pretty impressive neon scale.
“Badness is universal, but there is an outrageous, startlingly visual badness in behaviour that happens in Hollywood. You come away sort of impressed, almost charmed, by it.”
His comments came as he discussed his career during an intimate Q&A session hosted by presenter Francine Stock at the BFI London Film Festival on Sunday, just moments before he attended the premiere of On Chesil Beach.
McEwan wrote the screenplay from his own 2007 novella, telling the thought-provoking story of a young couple in the 1960s, who part ways only hours after their wedding following a catastrophic attempt to consummate their marriage.
It is not the first time that McEwan has adapted his own work for the big screen, but he described the job as a demotion from “playing God” to becoming the “cleaning lady”.
“You play God as a novelist and you are a fallen angel – or a cleaning lady – as a screenplay writer.
“Your film is by the director. You might bring the themes, the characters, the situations, every last bit of the circumstance, but you just sink into a team of people.”
He even went as far as labelling the exercise of screenwriting as “tragic” and explained: “You become in your mind, not only the director, but you’re the costume designer, director of lighting…
“You see it but you know full well that you will never do it on screen. What you are really doing with a screenplay is writing a recipe and many other people will be involved in making that meal.
“I cannot think of a screenplay as a literary form, it is basically a blueprint. You are simply laying down the possibilities for other people.”
While he praised movies in general for delivering some concepts more effectively than books and said that no story is impossible to film, he said they have a habit of “invading the imagination”.
Commenting on hit 2007 blockbuster Atonement, he lightheartedly accused actress Saoirse Ronan of “stealing” character Briony Tallis.
“If I were to pick up a copy of Atonement and read a passage about the little girl Briony, I see Saoirse Ronan,” he said.
“She has invaded it, she’s stolen it. But that’s fine by me.”
Then a teenager, Ronan returns in On Chesil Beach to take centre stage to play one half of the doomed couple, Florence Ponting.
McEwan praised the whole body of “fantastic casting” in the film, as well as the direction by Dominic Cooke, adding that it was still “all very startling” to see even clips of it on screen.