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The art of adaptation
Anthony Minghella with author Liz Jensen
Anthony Minghella with author Liz Jensen
Last updated: 23 October 2004 1854 BST
lineRenowned director Anthony Minghella is taking one of Liz Jensen's novels and turning it into a movie. Together they talk about the process of adapting fiction for the screen...

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Dressed in dark tracksuit and trainers, Anthony Minghella strikes a relaxed pose on stage at Cheltenham Town Hall as he prepares to talk. He's directed films that have received some serious critical and artistic praise such as The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain - all of which are adaptations from fiction.

Next year he's due to begin work on turning Liz Jensen's psychological thriller The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. It's the story of a nine year old boy in a coma, about the doctor who's assigned to look after him and the boy's disturbed and mysterious mother with whom the doctor becomes passionately involved.

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Anthony Minghella

Anthony Minghella is one of the hottest British film directors working anywhere these days. His every venture is eagerly awaited, exuberantly praised and then minutely scrutinised to see how he does it. An otherwise cool and charming man, he becomes enraged when people get his CV wrong so he was born in the Isle of Wight, his parents ran an ice-cream franchise and his very first screen adaptation was Inspector Morse.

He made Truly, Madly, Deeply with a copiously weepy Juliet Stevenson and an apartment of video watching ghosts. He won ten Oscars for The English Patient. He reinvented the gorgeous and dangerous Mediterranean of the 1950s with The Talented Mr Ripley and he created the austere and complex beauty of Cold Mountain which was an epic tale of the American Civil War, its cost to the civilians back home and the journey of one deserting soldier making his way back to the woman he barely knows.

Liz Jensen

Liz Jensen

Liz Jensen was born in Oxfordshire of Danish and Moroccan decent - she's worked at different times as a journalist in Hong Kong, for the BBC and she became a sculptor for a while in France. In the last ten years she's published five novels of which The ninth Life of Louis Drax is the latest.


The talk at Cheltenham Town Hall was based on the art of turning novels into films and the relationship, if any, that exist between these two friendly but rarely happily married art forms.

The process of transformation was explained, the strip-mining of the novel for the compressed image-strewn narrative that lurks inside it and the two protagonists were asked if there's such a thing as a visual poem or a filmic sentence.

The stars of the show are one filmmaker of uniquely literary sensibility and one novelist of a remarkably vivid imagination.

Anthony Minghella's last three movies were adapted from novels, his next one will be - what does he have against original screenplays?

"I got into adaptation by mistake. I'd never intended to be an adapter of novels for film but I work so slowly that I only have to read a book that I find irresistible about every four years and that will be my career. Cold Mountain was five years of my life and I was determined, and I'm still determined in some ways, not to adapt any more books. Then I read Liz's novel and it's such a fantastic book and such a realised book. Liz and I were discussing what it is about novels that have united some of the choices I've made over the last decade. For me, the only binding common denominator is the sense of plunging into a unique world.

When I adapted The English Patient I don't think I'd ever read a book like it. When I think of it now I think of a flavour, a perfume that's unique to that book. When I think of Louis Drax I certainly have never come across such a particular sense of the voice of a nine year old. I've never been plunged into a world which is defined by the parameters of somebody's skull the way this book is. It captures the imagination of a nine year old boy in a coma.

I think that how challenging it is an exercise to go from a fantastic read to a fantastic film was too good to say no to."

Why did Anthony decide to adapt Liz Jensen's novel in the first place?

"I try and read every day of my life and my nose is not sniffing for a movie. Most of the time I'm just loving the process of reading. I do have a company based in Los Angeles and London, and there are people who read and we get reader's reports of all the interesting books which are coming out. Every now and again someone will flag an unpublished book and say that this is something you might want to look at. As it happened I was contemplating a book called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly which is an extraordinary story written as a memoir by a paralysed Frenchman who can only communicate through his eyelids. I went some way down the road to investigate adapting that as a film because it was such an extraordinary book. Right in the middle of the discussion about committing to it I read this [Liz Jensen's] book and to me, one is a case study and the other is an imaginative, thrilling and mysterious adventure."

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is centrally concerned a boy who has fallen into a ravine and there's the question of 'did he fall or was he pushed?'. After he's discovered and taken to hospital, his father disappears. The books itself has an extraordinary chilling story based on real events within Liz Jensen's family. Liz explains:

"The starting point for it was a story in my family but I didn't even realise that when I started writing it. I think you don't always realise what you're doing when you're writing - your subconscious is always more intelligent than you are - so there had been this story in my family's background that had been niggling away at me for years which involved the death of my grandmother. She died after falling off a cliff in very strange circumstances. She was a widow and she'd taken her four children to Switzerland. She had a furious row with the oldest son and he'd stormed off into the mountains and had not come back. They'd sent out search parties to look for him and, after four days, he still hadn't returned. Then the weather turned bad. She became quite distraught and went out on her own to look for him. The next day a body was found and it was hers, at the bottom of a cliff. My uncle was never found and he just disappeared off the face of the earth in an area where you would have found a body if there'd been one.

When I was about halfway through the book I did think family tragedy in the mountains, falling person, mystery, and made the connection but I certainly didn't set out with the intention of using my family history. You hear a story like that when you're six, it's going to be stored in your subconscious and you are going to revisit it."

What appealed to Anthony about this particular story?

"I'm interested in memory, which is the most unreliable thing imaginable. One of the most exciting things about doing Louis Drax is that it's a contemporary story. It's not imprisoned in the past and people can wear jeans and not whalebone corsets. Film is particularly adroit at taking you into the memory. In a cut you can go from one place to another. Film is very prosaic in some ways in that it's got one eye - the camera - which can only see what's in front of it. It can't see around the edges of any story in a way that prose is wonderfully impressionistic. Film plods, it only looks at what's in front of it. However, the connection between images in film is fascinating and the ellipses of going from one shot to another has its own poetry, particularly when it's a poetry of tenses - the present and the past tense."

Imagery plays an important part in conveying narrative in Minghella films. In adapting a novel to film there's almost no correlation with the linear fall of words on a page to imagery which expresses a story. How does Anthony approach this transition?

"Dramatists make images so whether people say something or don't say something makes no difference, you're writing three dimensional events. My job as a dramatist is to say what is a theatrical transition between one scene and the next. How do I take the viewer into the past or future in a way that feels absolutely organic and necessary. When I started working on Cold Mountain the first thing I did was to draw three shots. I didn't write notes, I drew three images. I was sitting in a hotel room in Hong Kong at 5am and I opened my notebook and I started to draw transitions which became the opening sequence of Cold Mountain. I think the job of film is to write, instead of using nouns and adjectives, using shots."

Turning back to Liz, when she was writing about Louis in his coma she's entering a world within his head. How does she describe something seemingly as indescribable as that?

"I didn't find it difficult. I think the great thing about writing fiction is that you can do anything you want and you can go anywhere you want. I didn't feel inhibited in any way because there are no constraints on you when you're writing. I had this boy's voice in my head and it carried the narrative along, creating the story in the process."

Does Liz trust Anthony to do her story justice on the big screen?

"I'm a very big fan of his films. He's got a fantastic track record of adapting things in a way that captures the spirit of the original story. The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain; all of which I had read as books and then saw as films and realised that he had totally captured the spirit."

And does she approve of adaptations generally?

"I think a book is a book and a film is a film. I don't want to muddle them up, I think they are both separate things and I'll be fascinated to see what Anthony does with this book. It is something else altogether. It is the same story but told in a different and invigorating sort of way. I think it will be like being a first time reader of my own book. You never as a novelist have the luxury of reading your own book afresh. An adaptation can do that."

Adapting a novel to the big screen can be a tricky process where a lot can go wrong so what does Anthony think are the key considerations when planning such a project?

"Respect. There used to be adage in Hollywood that only bad books made good movies and I thought why would you waste five years of your life on something you didn't like or love. I think a passionate regard for the book is the most important thing. Also people don't come to the movies with the book comparing what you're doing to what they read. One of the things that has struck me, because the films I've done recently are big enough and expensive enough to be marketed and tested to death, every time we've screened a movie in front of a test audience only two or three percent of them had read the novel. So you have to assume that over 90 percent of the people who come to the cinema will never have read the source. One of the great things about adaptation of book to film is rather than annihilating the book they've actually created readers of the book. I think that, oddly, films are quite good adverts for novels. It's good because there's nothing more pleasurable and rewarding than reading. On the other hand it's the obligation of the filmmaker to provide a complete entertainment which has nothing to do with its cousin on the bookshelf."

How is the screenplay developed from the novel?

"Film is constant process of iteration so you expect to do 16, 17 or 18 drafts of the screenplay. It means that after a while you're not referring to your first ideas but those from draft 12's version. You really want your mind to blur from what happened in the novel. When I'm filming I don't read the novel at all - when I want to check some detail I usually call the office and get someone to read it to me."

Anthony, how does casting work?

"I'm obsessive about casting and I do like to cast by myself. Actors are human beings and it's an awful process when you get rejected nine times out of 10. I don't like being rejected and I don't like being in a process where there's a sense of judgement. I always try to sit with actors and imagine the film with them and make it, as much as I can, a self-selecting process."

And the process of film-making?

"The process of film-making is very laborious. I was in Transylvania [filming Cold Mountain] for ten months. Mostly by myself, mostly very miserable and film-making is like trying to eat an elephant with a teaspoon. It's very, very ploddy. You get there very slowly."

Anthony Minghella and Liz Jensen were interviewed on stage by John Walsh at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on Sunday 10th October 2004.

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