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
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