Scriptwriter takes "Atonement" to screen
Christopher Hampton, the Oxford-educated playwright and screenwriter who won an Oscar for his adaptation of "Dangerous Liaisons," read Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement" while on vacation a few years back
Seattle Times movie critic
Like many of us, Christopher Hampton reads novels while on holiday; unlike most of us, his leisure-time reading sometimes turns into a job of several years' duration. Hampton, the Oxford-educated playwright and screenwriter who won an Oscar for his adaptation of "Dangerous Liaisons," read Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement" while on vacation a few years back. "I couldn't move," he said of the experience of reading the book, a multilayered tale of a trio of lives changed in midcentury England by a young girl's lie. "I was riveted by it. It got better and better and deeper and deeper."
At the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall, Hampton explained how he came to adapt "Atonement" (which opens Friday at Pacific Place and Seven Gables) not once, but twice. After getting the nod from McEwan for the job, Hampton completed several drafts of the screenplay over "about a year." When the project's initial director left to make another film, Hampton met with the man hired to take over: British filmmaker Joe Wright, fresh from his well-received 2005 version of "Pride and Prejudice."
"He said, 'I like the script, but do you mind starting over from scratch?' " remembered Hampton, a genial man in his 60s who has the voice of an Oxford don and the exuberant long hair of a rock star. "Which made my heart sink. But in fact it was great; it was very good to start again. I'd never done that before, taken another go at a project from a completely different angle. [Wright] had a very clear idea of the sort of thing he wanted."
And so Hampton began again, using an adaptation process honed over many decades of writing for the screen and the stage. "I start a notebook, read the book several times, [write down] things that occur to me, little bits of dialogue, scraps of this and that. And then I gradually begin to sort of knit it together in my mind. Eventually I've got a sort of skeleton of how the film's going to be before I start writing. Quite loose, to give me some freedom and spontaneity while I'm doing it, but also quite specific.
"And then I just write as fast as I possibly can. Usually when I'm about halfway through, I think, 'Right, I know it exactly now.' I go away to a hotel for a week or 10 days, and usually write the last half of any movie that I'm writing in a few days. My superstition is that if you pour an enormous amount of energy into something, it will somehow be apparent on the other end."
Would-be screenwriters should note that this method isn't necessarily a healthy one. "For my play about Jung and Freud ["The Talking Cure"], which I wrote five or six years ago, I sort of passed out in a hotel in Paris," Hampton admitted. "I had to go to bed for several days. I had literally been up all night writing."
As the new version of "Atonement" took shape, Hampton found that "the more we worked on it, the closer back [to the novel] we got." He's long been puzzled by the conventional wisdom that a book can't make it to the screen without becoming drastically different along the way. "There's a real pressure, which I never understood, for change," he said. "Certainly it is an endemic thing in the studios."
He remembered being fired from a couple of projects for being too faithful to the book, including an adaptation of Deborah Moggach's novel "Tulip Fever." "I got fired. I didn't want to change it. I didn't see why they wanted to change it. I thought, why would you pay a million dollars for the rights to a book and then change it? I mean, what's the point? Of course it's a different media, but it's not a different plot."
One lost project that he greatly regrets: an adaptation of Donna Tartt's novel "The Secret History." "It's a marvelous book, and very cinematic. There was a moment where [the studio] said, well, the hero's too passive. I said, that's what the book's about. They said, well, we can't make a film with a passive hero. I wrote a screenplay, several drafts." Alan Pakula, the director Hampton was working with, died in a car crash, and the project "sort of drifted away. And then the option lapsed, and Donna Tartt was so disillusioned she didn't pick it up. One day, maybe they'll come to their senses."
For "Atonement," Hampton found that the screenplay became smoother if he closely followed the book's structure, which relays stories in several different time periods in long, separate blocks. And he removed a voice-over narration planned in an earlier draft. "Joe said, just as an exercise, try taking the voice-over out and see if you can find the right imagery to convey what the voice-over says without having it, because it's in danger of being such a hackneyed device. So I did, and I think it's better for it."
Hampton said he often writes with specific actors' voices in his head, but didn't for this film. "I knew they would be very young actors, and I didn't know who they would be." Keira Knightley, who starred in Wright's "Pride and Prejudice," signed on to play Cecilia Tallis, the young woman from a moneyed British family whose doomed love affair sets the plot in action. Hampton himself suggested James McAvoy for the role of her working-class lover, Robbie. And a little-known Irish preteen named Saoirse Ronan was cast in the central role of Cecilia's 13-year-old sister Briony, a would-be writer who sees more than she understands.
"I didn't meet the little girl until the read-through," said Hampton, "and I thought, my god, she's really good. I was astonished to find, speaking to her afterwards, that she's completely Irish. I said, 'You're very good,' and she said, [here Hampton slips into a thicker-than-Irish-stew brogue] "Oh, thank you very moootch!" (Ronan, whose first name is pronounced "sear-sha," has since been cast in Peter Jackson's 2008 film adaptation of the novel "The Lovely Bones.")
Next up for Hampton are a couple of familiar projects: film adaptations of two of his own plays. "Embers," based on a novel by Sandor Marai, is a tale of two men's friendship; the Freud/Jung drama "The Talking Cure" is slated to be directed by David Cronenberg.
"Once the thing exists in a certain medium," he said of the plays, "to translate it from theater terms to film terms is quite a big step. It has to be quite a big step, otherwise the result looks like a filmed play, which is never very satisfactory. You have to completely go back to the roots and think it through again, try and figure out how, if you'd been doing this as a movie first instead of a play, how would you have done it. It's like a new piece of work."
And is there another potential project lurking in his off-hours reading? Maybe, but he's content to wait and see what comes. "I love the work of [adaptation]," he says, "but I have various requirements. First of all I have to love the book. And I have to see it in my head as a movie."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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