Saturday 25 May 2019

Ian McEwan: Judges, Jehovah's Witnesses and the journey from page to screen

He's been writing screenplays since the 1970s, but last year's On Chesil Beach was the first time award-winning author Ian McEwan adapted his own work. He tells our film critic why he's done it all again with 2014 novel The Children Act

English novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan. Photo: Simone Padovani
Court drama: Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci in The Children Act
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Ian McEwan is of course first and foremost a novelist, the multi-awarding writer of such modern classics as The Child in Time, Amsterdam, Saturday and Atonement. But from the very start, his writing career has been closely bound up with cinema: no less than 11 of his books have been adapted for the screen, and McEwan himself has been writing screenplays since the 1970s. He's tended to steer clear of adapting his own work, though - until very recently.

Earlier this year, Saoirse Ronan led the cast of On Chesil Beach, Dominic Cooke's measured drama based on McEwan's adaptation of his 2007 novella about the sexual panic of a prudish, early 1960s couple. And now comes a Richard Eyre-directed dramatisation of his 2014 courtroom novel The Children Act. Why, I wonder, did he decide to adapt them himself?

"One of the main reasons I did both this film and On Chesil Beach," he tells me, "is because I didn't really want anyone else to do them. I'd have been quite happy not to do them in a way, but given that someone was interested in movie rights and I knew they'd get made, I thought, well, I'd rather it were me."

The Children Act, published in 2014, was inspired by a dinner McEwan had with a group of judges, when he resisted the urge to start frantically taking notes while listening to them "talking shop".

"It was a fascinating evening," he recalls. "It was the first time I'd really got close in that way to judges, and one of the things that surprised me most about them was how humorous they are away from the bench. They're so formidable or irascible in court, but in private they often tell jokes about the law. In the film, I really tried to capture that."

Eyre's drama stars Emma Thompson as the Honourable Mrs Justice Fiona Maye, a high court judge asked to rule on a difficult family case involving Jehovah's Witnesses while facing similarly complex problems in her private life. A 17-year-old boy has been diagnosed with leukaemia, and will die if he's not given a blood transfusion. But his parents, and the boy himself, are against the procedure, as Jehovah's Witnesses believe human blood is the sacred repository of the individual's spirit.

Solomon-like, but perhaps not entirely wisely, Fiona decides it is necessary to go to the boy's bedside to ascertain whether or not he has been unduly influenced by church elders or his parents. Eventually, she comes down in favour of medical intervention, but the boy has become besotted with her, and follows the judge like a shunned dog. Meanwhile, Fiona's husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), weary of a lack of marital intimacy, has announced he intends to have an affair.

The novel is dense and rich and charged with nuance, which can't have made adapting it easy.

"I began adapting The Children Act only a few years after I'd finished writing it, and you'd think it would be pretty boring to go back into the characters and their setting. But the problems of getting from one form to another are so interesting, and then there's the pleasure of working with other people, too - so different from sitting alone, with ghosts."

The novelist didn't have the luxury of being precious about his novel, either.

"The novel is the great form of the interior life," he says, "and when you're writing a screenplay, you're trying to find ways to reach equivalents of that, which ultimately means that characters' thoughts have to be turned into dialogue, which will mean making up scenes that don't necessarily exist in the novel. That technical problem of transition is like a sort of meta-problem, so that's what's new and that's what's fresh, I guess - you are writing things that are not in the novel, and trying to give flesh to things that might just be a fleeting line but catch the spirit of that scene.

"So for instance, at the very start of the novel we have Fiona sitting silently smarting after an exchange with her husband where he's told her he's having an affair. You couldn't do that in a movie, but it's played out simply by creating a scene in which Stanley Tucci comes along the corridor and asks Fiona if she'll come to bed and she says she's too busy. But in the film it happens later, after we've established who she is, what she does, what the pressures on her are." As played by Thompson, Fiona is a fascinating character, publicly decisive, privately procrastinating, retreating from her marital problems by using frosty silence as a weapon.

"Every day," McEwan says, "she sits there settling other people's family disputes and moral quandaries, but when she encounters difficulty in her own life, she sulks and prefers silence and confides in no one. Which is why in the movie it was very tempting to make her husband an American, who can play across cultural lines: he's much more open, and confrontational, and says sure I made a mistake and I've said I'm sorry a thousand times but what the hell is the use of you being silent? That worked well I think, especially having Stanley do it.

"In the novel - though I could be wrong about this - I don't think I describe how Fiona looks, because in writing it I always felt like I was in her head, looking outwards. So what you're counting on is for the actor to bring all that to life, and then whatever you thought or half-thought the character looked like, you abandon it. I can't now look at the pages of The Children Act without seeing Emma, so in a sense she's kidnapped the character. She's just brought her own skills to it and done it in her own way, and if it's done well you just think this is inevitable."

He and the film's director Eyre have been friends for years.

"Though he's done lots of films as well, Richard's life's blood is the theatre, and that means he's much more interested in having a close relationship with the writer. There are many film directors who see the writer as just an amanuensis to their imagination, but Richard approaches film-making much as I imagine he would a play, so the screenplay is the play and how do we realise it.

"But there's still lots of toing and froing about the script itself - a screenplay is not a literary artefact in my mind, it's just a halfway house, a set of instructions, a blueprint. It's a recipe, not the meal."

Casting is a vital thing to get right in adaptations, and McEwan was delighted he got Saoirse Ronan to play Florence Ponting in On Chesil Beach.

"She's a magical actor," he says, "and everyone wants her now, she's very hard to get. With On Chesil Beach I went into it saying, I know you can't make this happen, but this is who I would most like. And the director, Dominic Cooke, he hadn't met her or worked with her, so he went over to New York to see her and instantly emailed me and said 'Yes!' She's another one, she kidnapped the girl in Atonement in my mind, and I can't imagine that novel now without a sense of Saoirse in there."

Though cinema has played such a big part in his working life, it was largely absent for much of McEwan's childhood.

"I was a bit deprived in that respect," he explains, "because my father was in the army and I grew up mostly in North Africa, so I only saw occasional movies. Then, when I went to boarding school, there were three movies a term but they had this awful PA system there and everyone on screen sounded like their cheeks were full of bananas.

"I caught up in my student years, and got completely absorbed by watching three or four movies a week - all the French new wave, Louis Malle, Godard, and the American movies of the 1970s, like The Conversation had a big impact on me, and Deliverance, there was a stretch there when American movie-making seemed very serious."

The history of cinema is littered with the charred remains of ham-fisted literary adaptations, but there are some good ones, and for McEwan one stands head and shoulders above them all.

"John Huston's The Dead is the best translation of a literary work I've ever seen. It's a double thing for me really, because I think The Dead is one of the most perfect works of fiction ever devised. It's the most extraordinarily controlled piece of work by a relatively young writer, and Huston really understood it I thought, and the way he managed the end of it, it's just amazing. He does the thing that film directors usually kick against - he lets the writer have the final say. When Gabriel says 'snow is general over Ireland' and all that, it's so powerful. It was Huston's last movie, wasn't it? What a way to bow out."

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