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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
stars of the show are one filmmaker of uniquely literary sensibility
and one novelist of a remarkably vivid imagination.
Minghella's last three movies were adapted from novels, his next
one will be - what does he have against original screenplays?
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.
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.
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."
did Anthony decide to adapt Liz Jensen's novel in the first place?
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."
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:
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.
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."
appealed to Anthony about this particular story?
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
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?
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."
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?
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
Liz trust Anthony to do her story justice on the big screen?
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."
does she approve of adaptations generally?
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."
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?
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
is the screenplay developed from the novel?
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."
how does casting work?
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."
the process of film-making?
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."
Minghella and Liz Jensen were interviewed on stage by John Walsh
at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on Sunday 10th October
about Gloucestershire festivals