Novels can be described as “cinematic” for different reasons. The prose might have a lush, vivid attention to detail that would translate into award winning visuals on screen. There might be a twisty, zippy, unpredictable plot on the page probably perfect for a gripping thriller. The author may have managed to conjure a succession of particularly fresh and engrossing action scenes or mastered the art of quick witted dialogue. Just because a book is successful and it earns the description “cinematic” however, does not necessarily mean it will work well as a film.
The adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2009 word of mouth sensation One Day has encountered a great deal of critical hostility with its release this week. Some will muse wisely that such disappointment is inevitable with cinematic renderings of much loved books, especially when so many people have read it. And One Day really has been a sensation, reaching into almost every demographic. In 2010 it was the highest selling British novel and its distinctive orange cover continues to be a permanent and prominent landmark in Waterstones stores everywhere, even without the help of the star studded film.
One star in particular, of course, has stolen the headlines. The moneymen behind One Day will be hoping that there really is no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to the ever swelling chorus denouncing American beauty Anne Hathaway’s erratic Yorkshire accent. Most critics have labelled it “distracting” at best and for those that have read the book, falling head over heels in love with lead character Emma in the process, Hathaway’s looks will be no consolation, as her casting in their view trampled on the beloved protagonist’s origins.
For the few of you that haven’t somehow heard about the book’s premise, One Day follows students Emma and Dexter, or Em and Dex, as they graduate from Edinburgh University in 1988, right up until the late noughties. But the unique selling point is that we only drop in on their lives, together and apart, on the same day each year; July the 15th, St Swithin’s Day. It’s on this day that Emma and Dexter almost “do the deed” after graduation and the date continues to have significance throughout their lives and the friendship that follows.
The reviews and summaries of One Day universally categorise it as a protracted “will they, won’t they” rom com. Fans of the book though will expect more than that from the film because of its qualities on the page. David Nicholls wrote something that was not only immensely readable but perceptive, poignant and powerful too, taking in a panorama of growing up and culture in the late 20th century.
For all its merits, One Day does undeniably share similarities with chick lit or trashy airport fiction. However despite its enticing plot and moving emotion, it almost always feels real and complex. Its dialogue is lifelike and witty, its characters’ feelings convincingly muddled. Heavy themes are softened by wry humour. It’s a book about youth simultaneously slipping away unnoticed and lingering problematically well into adulthood. No matter what happens to your career or shifting ambitions or inspirations, sometimes the people you care about most are the ones that were there from the beginning. Most of all it’s a story about life; every dizzying high and sickening low.
So do I think it works as a film? Twenty minutes in I had written it off. From the start there were bad signs. The actor’s names appeared scrawled across the screen in an atrociously pretentious font, completely at odds with the tone of the sourcematerial. Aside from such minor aesthetic quibbles though the inescapable fact was that the concept, dropping in on just the one date every year, did not make a smooth or effective transition from ink to celluloid. I began to form an opinion that didn’t even rate One Day as an average romantic comedy.
Back to that word “cinematic” then. It was the fresh idea of parachuting into the story via the same date annually which many book reviewers had labelled “cinematic”. On the page it did feel filmic, partly due to the pace but mainly because of the added intensity. Emotional punches usually came from nowhere because we’d skipped twelve months of Emma or Dexter’s lives. With the written word we also steadily accumulated information, so that we literally got to know them. But the first few years flash by at the cinema and we don’t care at all.
Why doesn’t the novel’s unique selling point work on film? One reason is simply the economy required by the runtime. Nicholls wrote the screenplay, as he was too reluctant to hand over control of Emma and Dexter to anyone else, but he has had to be ruthless with their experiences. And he did a much better job adapting his own Starter for Ten, which is currently on BBC iPlayer, starring James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall.
We miss out on the heartfelt letters between Em and Dex that both cements their friendship and hints at a stifled romance. Emma goes straight to work at a Mexican restaurant on screen, whereas in the book after graduation she tries to chase a dream working with a theatre company, whilst he, equally unsure about his future, travels in India.
The other key reason the jumps in time don’t work is because we lose the inner voice occasionally provided on the page. Nicholls does not resort to it often, preferring to let events and dialogue suggest meaning and propel the plot along, but now and then we see inside Emma’s head. We’re reminded how caring and clever she is but how confused and scared she is too. And we also glimpse Dexter’s heart now and again; he cares about her beneath the raving, off the rails exterior. I began to understand why some critics had called for a jumbled order to events, as in 500 Days of Summer.
Thankfully for the film it ends strongly. There are enjoyable performances from both Rafe Spall and Romola Garai, as Em and Dex finally grow up too late. The years gradually tick over and we do get to know the characters that seemed alive almost instantly in the book. The dialogue gets less expositional because the background has been established with the disappointing opening. For me the turning point was a moment when Dexter, superbly played by Jim Sturgess, lifts his mother, who is suffering from cancer, up the stairs to bed. It’s the first time in the film that heartstrings are properly pulled and the first convincing scene of character development.
There are a number of scenes in the film where I cried and several more in which I laughed. Like the book, the film is both sad and funny. However as diehards will be quick to point out you do not laugh as much or cry as much, at the film. It also lacks the depth of its literary parent. But by the end the narrative was certainly hitting some strong emotional notes.
One Day the movie ended as an above average, emotionally involving romantic comedy, which ultimately didn’t do the book justice. And I’m not sure those that haven’t read the book will even think it’s above average.
The final word then is, of course, on Anne Hathaway’s accent. She apparently watched Emmerdale to school herself in Yorkshire tones. She would not fit in on Emmerdale. Her accent is off-putting and her overall performance is incomplete. Hathaway is a very fine actress but there’s no doubt she was miscast here.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this One Day feature and I’ll explain who might’ve done a better job. And in Part 3 I’ll sing the praises of Jim Sturgess, who overshadows Hathaway throughout.
(In defence of the beautiful Anne, her voice makes no detrimental difference to the film once she stops trying too hard.)