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 PAUL WHITINGTON why he’s done it all again with 2014 novel

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - CULTURE -

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

The Chil­dren Act

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

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