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Adapting good and successful novels: One Day, A Very Private Gentleman (The American) and Room


I’ve discussed the business of adapting books into films before on this blog, and indeed the increasing phenomenon of the adaptation as opposed to original screenplays. I’ve bemoaned the lack of creativity in the film industry, leading to such a focus on both true stories and transformations of already existing fiction dominating this year’s Oscars, for example. But for all my ranting and raving there’s something irresistible about a good adaptation, because if your source material’s good there’s a good chance your interpretation of it will be. It’s like a kind of quality guarantee.

Then again it’s a treacherous tightrope to walk, especially when you’re bringing not only a good novel but a commercially successful one to the screen. Films based on novels with a huge and devoted following will benefit from the diversity and commitment of that fan base at the box office, but perhaps also suffer critically if they don’t capture the brilliance of the book.

After mingling the words in your mind and arranging them on the page, watching their finely tuned order blossom into a bestseller and basking in the praise and revenue, it must be hard for an author to relinquish control of his characters, no matter what the financial compensations. This is presumably why many decide to remain attached to the cinematic versions of their creations as writer or producer or something, even with the risk of their original being tarnished and overshadowed.

David Nicholls did just this for the adaptation of his immensely successful One Day, choosing to write the screenplay himself. There is now a trailer online for the film, which can be seen over at Empire Magazine via this link: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=30843

I was absolutely absorbed in One Day when I read it and funnily enough I think I read it in roughly one day. It’s one of those books that you have to try really hard not to call a “page turner” because of how limp and cliché that sounds. It really is difficult to put down though. It became an ever present feature of the landscape of bookshops for a long, long time and still lurks prominently in the shadows. No doubt it will enjoy a revival with the release of the film. It was not the usual sort of addictive trash either. There was an organic originality to the concept, a humour and truth to the writing. The two main characters, Dexter and Emma, were fabulously realised. It was at once epic and emotional, experimental and accessible.

It did divide critical opinion, but the overwhelming consensus was that it was a cracking read, a verdict echoed at tills across the country. It’s the story of Dexter and Emma, who meet and sleep together one day at the end of their time at Edinburgh University. In bed they discuss the future, their hopes, fears and dreams for it. The novel follows them on the same date of the year, whatever they’re doing, for every year that follows their meeting. It mostly focuses on their relationship as friends but also charts their development as people, journeying through alternative aspects of British history like dodgy 90s TV along the way.

It was quite a few months ago now that I read One Day but I am still excited about seeing its rebirth in cinemas. It will be difficult to bottle up the simultaneously intimate and epic feel of the book for the audience, but as I’ve said before what really matters is capturing the spirit, the essence and sentiment of a story. The trailer certainly seems to strike some of the right emotional chords, as One Day really was enormously touching and moving as well as gripping. It may simply be that my age, one of transition between worlds, allowed me to inhabit Dexter and Emma’s shoes perfectly and marvel at the rollercoaster of their lives, grounded in those student beginnings. But then again, One Day shows snapshots of its key characters at a variety of ages, so anyone should be able to jump right in and live their human journeys. Perhaps that is part of the secret to its appeal.

Three Cs are very important for a good adaptation: cutting, casting and creativity. Nicholls would certainly have had to ruthlessly cut chunks of his already lovingly crafted and edited novel for the screen, as well as find the right leads. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess are the chosen ones, and they seem to fit the bill in the trailer, in spite of wavering accents on occasion, as Empire point out in their commentary on the footage. I’ve also recently seen and reviewed The American, starring George Clooney, which was based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Screenwriter Rowan Joffe changed aspects of the story rather dramatically, including its conclusion, for a modern and cinematic update to the book. Despite my gripes about the increasing frequency of adaptations, it is possible to be really creative and bold with them, with the added benefit of a proven base material to work with. Joffe was certainly creative, as was Clooney, who needed to exhibit the right physical mannerisms to convey the book’s character in miniscule brush strokes, compared to Booth’s first person narration.

Having now both read the book and watched the film, Joffe appears to have done a good job in creating The American. And as I’ve said, perhaps what is most admirable is that he has created something, not merely transplanted the book to the screen, which can be the worst mistake when adapting something that’s already celebrated art. The original novel, written in the first person about a gun maker nearing retirement, was impossible to adapt as it was. It needed more drama and would lack the charismatic voice of the page. It needed new sources of charisma.

The film does drop key themes of the novel. Interestingly as a student of history, Booth’s recluse (known as Signor Farfalla or Mr Butterfly, as his cover is painting them) is outwardly repulsed by the idea of history and progress, unless it is the history of ordinary men. And yet his narration repeatedly comes back to the idea through imagery, symbolism and anecdotes. Mr Butterfly claims that he is truly influencing history by providing the weapons for assassination with deft craftsmanship behind the scenes. But what the novel hints at, which a film couldn’t do in the same way, is that the narrator is struggling with the idea that after his retirement no one will remember his life’s work. If he has altered history it is unnoticeably so. He never says as much but the light implications are there and extremely fascinating.

Booth was also a constant traveller, as well as a writer of history, which might explain Mr Butterfly’s anecdotes of the world and some of his eye for detail, along with his warped fascination with the past. One of the ways the film captures the incredibly vivid and visual style of the book is through director Anton Corbijn’s direction. Corbijn used to be a photographer, and in the film this becomes Clooney’s character’s cover and he never gains the nickname Signor Farfalla, only The American. This somewhat spoils Booth’s unassuming character blending into any background, but the essence of him remains the same and the parallels with the striking visuals of the film and the descriptions of the book are appropriate.

The American is a very minimalist and restrained production. You get more from the book in terms of the character, but still not a great deal, so Joffe reflects this with the dialogue. This is still a man in isolation with a unique existence, who forms meagre relationships that are still too much for a man of his profession. He is growing too susceptible to these ties with age. What I liked particularly about The American is that it stands alone from the book and one can be enjoyed without the other, just as well as the two together. They are distinctive and different but enjoyable entities of subtlety.

Of course some books should simply never be adapted. Something about them cannot be replicated and without this something any adaptation becomes a pointless exercise. A bad adaptation of such a book is painful and a great shame. I think that Room by Emma Donghue, shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, is such an un-adaptable book.

It’s been a while since I finished reading Room, and in any case my observations and insights would not compare to fellow blogger Tom Cat’s: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/room-emma-donoghue/

I will briefly say why I think any adaptation would fail however. Room is reliant on the first person narration of Jack, a five year old who has been imprisoned since birth in a small room with his mother. This is the controversial novel inspired by the Fritzl case. I was sceptical about reading it and presumed it to be an exercise in creative writing drawing rather shamefully off of ghastly deeds in the media.

After I read the first pages of Room however I was hooked enough to buy it. And Jack himself is never abused. The novel is bleak and harrowing at times, but usually because of what Jack doesn’t say. The obvious implications, for example when Jack counts the creaks in his mother’s bed from his hiding place of the wardrobe, are the chilling thing for the reader.

What Room is really about is a unique five year old, nurtured with extremely intimate and confined love from his mother. As Tom Cat points out in his review, the philosophical points potentially there to be explored are many. Instead of really delving these depths however Room is more intriguing for its characterisation of Jack and the original voice Donoghue gives him. He makes incredibly perceptive observations about the modern world through both his innocence and ignorance. Occasionally his impressive vocabulary doesn’t quite sit right and convince, despite it mostly being explained away by his intense education from an early age; sometimes Jack obviously uses Donoghue’s word or phrase rather than his own. But the fact that this only happens now and then is a remarkable achievement.

For the most part Room is a heartbreaking, funny and thrilling story that takes a fresh view of modern life and culture. Everything good about this story derives from Jack’s completely original and skilfully executed narrative voice though. Many of the reviews of Room call its concept unique, but it really isn’t that astounding, simply ripped from extensive news coverage. It’s the clever angle from which Donoghue approaches her story that’s so wonderful and this couldn’t be transformed into film, no matter how they attempted to do it. Voiceover would not work; we are witnessing the thoughts tumbling through Jack’s head not a commentary of events. Jack’s innocence wouldn’t transfer to the screen, so neither would the appeal and success of the novel.

Mrt’sblog First Anniversary Special: An ignorant review of The A-Team


A year ago this month I started this blog. I had always written and always wanted to write. I’d always imagined my life with some form of writing in it and hoped that I could do it for a living. And now thanks to this online archive of my work, I do live to write; about films, politics, football, books, television and more. I lack a particular speciality but so many things interest me that even if it hinders the expansion of my readership I cannot see myself settling on the one subject. And even with my scatter gun approach this blog has grown into something I couldn’t have envisioned a year ago.

I write regularly for a film website, Flickering Myth, that’s stuffed full of quality contributions. Recently it celebrated its own anniversary, a second birthday, not long after placing high in several online polls of movie sites. Occasionally I contribute to the national football blog, and epicentre of passionate debate, Caught Offside. My political pieces join those from other politically active and intelligent thinkers of the younger generation over at Demo Critic. Links to all these sites that are worthy of regular visits, can be found in my blog roll to the right.

I suppose I should update the “About” section for this blog, written over a year ago now. It’s very vague and as I’ve already said I still lack a specific focus; but I do now commit a great deal of time and hopefully productive energy to these articles and reviews. In the coming months I plan to attempt progressively more ambitious projects for the site. I’m aware that my blog is still perhaps only properly read by a few sympathetic friends and the odd one-off viewer. But for even one person to find my work and appreciate it means an awful lot. Perhaps someday the better pieces in this catalogue can provide a helpful showcase of my promise and interests.

I know this post is proving to be rather self-indulgent. It’s a bit of a drawn out and elaborate begging routine I suppose; a plea for anyone who likes anything at all they see here to come to stay at the virtual home of my mind again sometime.  It’s especially grovelling when I throw in that today I’ve attempted to connect the blog to Twitter, a social phenomenon I’m unfamiliar with, in order to spread the word. You can “follow” me, like the obsessive and drooling delusional stalker you are, by clicking this link: http://twitter.com/Mrtsblog#

For me, writing this post is also quite soppy and loaded with sentiment. Because a year on from the start of my blog, my life is very different and drastically altered. I have both changed and remained the same. My views and opinions have evolved, whilst some values remain steadfastly in place. Most pathetically of all, I am far happier than I was a year ago. To quote half an advertising slogan, “the future’s bright…”. Against seemingly gloomy odds I’ve found a chunk of satisfaction and a handful of essential ingredients I had always lacked to be happy. This blog was part of the undulating and youthful, but ultimately tame, journey of the past year for me. At one time I felt the need to vent on here as if it were a diary. Now I look back on that as naive and immature. That part of me has evaporated and I look to the future with a grateful smile on my face. Older and wiser with those that I’m close to.

“SHOOT ME NOW!” you cry with stinging tears of irritation burning your angry face. Unfortunately I still have a tendency to ramble on a bit. I apologise for that overemotional detour. But I assure you I’m getting to the point. In fact, I’m about to get this infant’s birthday party started (it’s ok because I’m the parent). If I have such a thing as a “regular reader”, they may have wondered, and continue to do so, why this blog is called “Mrt’sblog”. I know from the handy stats tool provided by Word Press that every now and then the odd fan of The A-Team or Mr T stumbles across the green expanse of my page , via Google or other equally able (but let’s face it less well known) search engines, probably only to leave rapidly with a sense of disappointment. You see I never watched the original TV series of The A-Team and I’m not even much of a fan of Mr T himself.

The incredibly snappy, but uninteresting story behind this blog’s name, that proves brevity is rarely a virtue, goes as follows: an old History teacher of mine, one I still have fond recollections of, started calling me “Mr T” at some point during lessons, purely on account of my surname beginning with that letter of the twenty-six strong crew that is the alphabet. There was lots of what a certain type of annoying person might call, “legendary banter”, in these lessons. I cultivated with unhealthy and unnatural pride a slight cult of celebrity around this Mr T persona at school, with those in my class fully aware of my hotshot funny man status, solidified by the teacher’s jokey approval. It’s a level of fame I miss. Yes reader I live a narrow and dull existence. But then when starting out in the mysterious entity of the blogosphere, stretching tentative tentacles in exploration, unsure of what exactly to do with my own blog, I recalled the nickname from school and adopted it on a whim. Anything was preferable to exposing my shy face as it is to the world.

As I’ve said then, there is no connection to The A-Team. The music of course is iconic. As are some of the catchphrases. But for people from my generation the tune is unavoidably accompanied by two moustachioed fun-runners singing “ONE-ONE-EIGHT! ONE-ONE-EIGHT!” in oddly booming voices, offering to solve rare and strange occurrences. Equally the more memorable one-liners and personalities that no doubt originate in their best and purest form from the TV series, have tended to only crop up for me in adverts. Such as Mr T urging me to “Get some nuts” and rush out to buy a Snickers from the turret of a tank. Unfortunately I don’t own a tank and I don’t think my arms would be long enough to reach down to the counter and pay from way up there, perched on the gun. So I declined his command. Also I don’t like nuts.

Knowing that my blog’s birthday was coming up though, I decided its present would be a short and ignorant view of the film The A-Team from last year. I promptly elevated the DVD to a top priority title on Love Film and hoped it would arrive before the end of the month. Luckily I just about scraped the deadline. Hopefully my blog won’t hate me too much for missing the precise date.

THE A-TEAM opens spectacularly and the action is pretty much non-stop throughout. The bigger action set pieces are heavily reliant on shameless CGI effects. Normally this would ruin a film for me, but the core characters that make up The A-Team are so likeable and funny, bouncing off each other and generally not taking things too seriously, that you can look past the blatant lack of realism or stunning visuals most of the time. There’s something inexplicably endearing about these men falling about inside a tank as it supposedly hurtles through the air. At times I swear my eyes just saw actors mucking about in front of a green screen, but that’s still funny right?

I think I’ve stressed quite enough I know nothing of the original A-Team, so I am judging this film purely on its own merits. For all I know it could be an absolute travesty for fans of The A-Team, but to me the casting of the key players and the dynamic between them worked well. Liam Neeson is always assured in my opinion and here we see a funnier side to him. The suitably named Quniton “Rampage” Jackson takes on the Mr T, B.A. Baracus role, and more than looks the part. Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley are excellent as the quirkier members of the foursome.

The highlight of The A-Team for me was a scene in which the loony Murdock, played by Copley, is broken out of an asylum by his fellow team members. Murdock is sent a film to watch with 3D glasses and the film plays with a jeep hurtling along a road, only for it to burst through the wall to the amazement and delight of the patients, sporting their retro 3D specs. Murdock promptly escapes, wearing his set of specs, exclaiming as the team are shot at that the bullets look so lifelike in 3D. In a film full of simple gags, here was some physical, action packed humour that also doubled up as cutting satire of the current 3D trend.

All of the action in The A-Team is fun, if not groundbreaking or gripping. A scene with abseiling, gun toting baddies on Frankfurt skyscrapers with lots of smashing glass is quite inventive and hard hitting though, whilst still having the laughs present throughout the story. The plot itself is fine but uninspiring, as the gang attempt to clear their name and reclaim some stolen plates for printing US dollars. Patrick Wilson as mysteriously named CIA agent Lynch is particularly wonderful and amusing. He gets many of the best lines and delivers them in the believable style of a man with the heart of an easily impressed teenager. Watching an explosion from a satellite view, he gasps “wasn’t that just like Call of Duty?”. I may have missed many A-Team in jokes, but there were lots like this one that were up to date enough for the modern generation. Generally Wilson plays a refreshingly cynical and hilarious shady villain.

The A-Team was a film that exceeded my expectations. It’s a perfect pick me up and two hours of harmless fun with even recurring jokes like burly Baracus’ reluctance to fly, still making me smile by the end.

Happy first Birthday blog! Finally a post relevant to your name.

Armistice Day 11-11-2010


“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

Hearing a wise, sombre voice of experience gently intone these lines every November is always disarmingly moving. And so it was today at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month. Even the date has a twisted, bizarre symmetry and significance. You cannot help but feel refreshingly tiny and naive, as part of something greater, a unified more meaningful whole. You cannot help but feel guilt for getting so caught up and needlessly emotional about your trivial everyday concerns.

I arrived at the village war memorial in the church grounds a good half an hour before the silence was due to begin. So I crossed the road and sat down on a damp bench. From here I could watch the folk of various hues arrive and take their places. From what I remember of last year’s silence, which was rain soaked, the turnout was poor. Today however, despite a definite wetness to the agitated air around us, a sizeable crowd gathered. It was a disappointingly predictable bunch, consisting of the elderly, the vicar, the handful of children from the local schools compelled to go by their teachers. I was the only youthful attendee besides a young couple who also preferred to hover at the edges of this familiar crowd.

Of course many did not attend because they were at school or work and observing silences of their own and it is right that they do not greatly alter their usual daily routine, as the sacrifices were made in order to allow the continued existence of everyday life. But it was disheartening to know that acquaintances of mine, with nothing better to do, had stayed at home. My generation’s lack of a sense of history is depressing. And even if the stay-aways did bow their heads in a private moment of reflection, which is of course fine, it is a shame they could not make the trek to a public event to prove to the older generations and doubters that the youth of today are not so very different, and just as capable of respect. Whether or not we would have coped so well with the challenges faced by generations tasked with terrifying world wars on the continent, is another matter.

I am sometimes of the opinion that donning the respectful poppy too early can detract from the overall message of Remembrance. The overwhelming poignancy of the moment itself should be preserved and anything that diminishes its intensity is a threat to the longevity and colour of the tradition. However it is obvious in a modern world that the British Legion requires a good deal of time to build the profile of the day, to raise funds for those it still cares for today and to educate those youngsters completely unfamiliar with the concept. It is just sometimes a shame, purely from the point of view of a historian, that the vibrancy of reflections on the two great world wars of the twentieth century is endlessly diluted. Whilst the sacrifices of servicemen and women in modern conflict are just as worthy and brave, the motivations behind these conflicts are often more dubious and they do not cast the shame shadow as the two major conflicts. As well as remembering the cruelly cut short lives of soldiers and military personnel, the key message of Remembrance Day, it always seemed to me, was that never again would war be permitted to swell to such terrible, destructive size. By annually reflecting and re-examining the memories, we as a nation would never forget and strive for a peaceful world.

I have often felt adrift and without a purpose in this twenty-first century world of ours and it was easy to daydream in my younger days of living in a previous era; exotic times of unity and meaning and excitement and daring. But glancing at the faces of those so obviously personally touched by catastrophic events, I was reminded of why I should feel lucky. For the sort of national unity, togetherness and purpose felt during the world wars was forged from extraordinary hardships, and the dreams of people then are our realities today. We owe it to them to make the most of what was won for us and dream up our own inspiring visions of advancement. No doubt many are put off from attending a “service” at a memorial due to the smattering of religious attachments. Personally I do not find any sort of contradiction in respectfully staying silent during the prayers, bowing my head whilst others choose to say “Amen”. I found some of the rhythms and imagery of prayer adding to the tears welling in my eyes. Most of all, regardless of faith, the torrents of unified mourning, respect and sadness needed a focus, which the vicar and his Bible provided, at times. Powerful beyond words though were the lines, mumbled by all:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them