Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, Michelle Dockery, Michael Gambon and Charlotte Rampling star in William Boyd's Restless for BBC One

Interview with William Boyd

Category: BBC One; Drama
Restless is the fifth of my novels to have made it to the screen, following Stars And Bars (1988), A Good Man In Africa (1994) Armadillo (2001) and Any Human Heart (2010). The first two were movies, made by Hollywood studios. Armadillo was a three-hour three-parter made for the BBC. Any Human Heart a five-hour four-parter made for Channel 4. I wrote the scripts for them all and I definitely prefer television.

The main and obvious reason for this is length. For the writer, the great appeal of a TV adaptation is room to move, time to breathe and the possibility of characters being allowed to express their character rather than be subject to the rigours of the time-frame of a conventional film – almost always trapped around about 90-120 minutes, in my experience, whatever the length of the original novel or source material. The inevitable and brutal cutting down of a novel that then occurs when the story makes the move from page to screen always seems exacerbated when it’s destined for the cinema. But on television, Armadillo, for example, was the equivalent, more or less, of two movies. Any Human Heart added up to three generous ones. The same applies to this three-hour version of Restless. For me, speaking as both author and screenwriter, it is a most alluring bonus.

At root, the problem of all filmed adaptations of novels lies in the difference between the two art forms. The novel is a world of infinite freedom – you can do literally anything in it and with it. Film (and I include TV drama in the categorisation) is a world of compromise, of parameters, of impossibilities. Film is photography, remorselessly objective as we look through the camera lens at the world that is being created. As a novelist moving between the two media I am very conscious of leaving my world of infinite freedom for a new world of omnipresent constraint.

Over the years of adapting my own novels, other writers’ novels, and non-fiction books for the screen I’ve tried to come up with a compelling analogy that captures this thorny and taxing process of moving between the two art forms, of formulating some sort of thought-experiment that will allow non-writers to understand something of the strange and complex transformation that is involved. The problem of adapting is further complicated when the writer is adapting his own book – there’s a familiarity with the material that is unique and so this new thought experiment I’ve come up with takes this factor into account.

Imagine you are standing in front of your own house. Moreover, this is a house that you have built yourself, with your own hands. There it sits, complicated or simple, an architectural folly or a model of classic restraint. In any event, it’s all yours and it’s all coming down. Your next task is to demolish it and, from the rubble of the demolition, to rebuild it anew. One can imagine the result. Damage will have occurred to the bricks and mortar, the beams and roof tiles, as the house was demolished. Not everything will be recoverable. The garage will have to go, forget the greenhouse and the games room. Also, the rebuilt house will have something of a ramshackle, knocked-about air. Bold improvisation will have been required to reproduce the elegant curving staircase and that lovely dormer window with balcony. That chimney is stumpier. Some of the guest bedrooms are missing. Not all the plumbing will function as well as it did. And so on. The house stands there, rebuilt on the same site but it will inevitably both be smaller and different. Out of something old you will have made something new - similar but not identical. However, if you’re lucky or clever enough to work with skillful fellow-builders then your newly reconstructed house may, from certain aspects, look even more charming and intriguing.

I think this thought-experiment replicates pretty much what we did with Restless. My key fellow architects in the rebuilding enterprise were the director, Edward Hall, Hilary Bevan Jones, Tom Nash and Paul Frift – later aided and abetted by a world-class crew and a cast to die for: Hayley Atwell and the legendary Charlotte Rampling playing the older and younger selves of the heroine and spy, Eva Delectorskaya; Rufus Sewell and Michael Gambon doing the same for the charismatic spymaster, Lucas Romer, and Michelle Dockery, playing Eva’s daughter, Ruth, looking on as the secrets of her mother’s Second World War espionage life come to haunt her own, 30 years later. For the novelist, seeing his imagined characters embodied in the living, breathing forms of great and compelling actors is one of the sweetest recompenses of film-making. It is one of those aspects of the demolition/rebuilding job that actually enhances the finished project, I feel.

When the great Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov first saw the film that Stanley Kubrick had made of his unfilmable novel Lolita he refused to judge it by reference to the original source. Film, Nabokov said, should aspire to be a “vivacious variant” of the original. A film has to be a variant, as we have seen, because of the very nature of the difference between the two art forms. Vivacity comes from the people who create it.

In the fraught and compelling three hours of Restless we explore the human consequences of what it is to be a spy. What price do you pay when you have to live in a world where nobody can be trusted, even those people you love? Eva Delectorskaya’s long journey from the jeopardy of the Second World War to the restless watchfulness of someone living a totally secret, underground existence touches on emotions we all inevitably encounter as we explore, through the course of our own lives, what it means to experience the human condition.

And so the new Restless has risen from the demolished rubble of the old – metaphorically speaking – and, different as it is, reconfigured as it is, I have to say I am totally delighted with the look of the new building.