Novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan discusses the challenges and rewards of adapting his On Chesil Beach, the importance of music to his storytelling, and why he prefers to work with directors who come from the theatre. Read the rest of our On Chesil Beach Special Issue here. here.
British novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan had two films premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival — On Chesil Beach and The Children Act — both written by him and based on his books. On Chesil Beach, directed by first-time filmmaker and longtime theatre director Dominic Cooke, is about a newly married couple struggling to make their way through their wedding night. He’s working class; she’s posh; and many things divide them aside from their sexual inexperience, despite their deep love for each other. Directed by Richard Eyre, The Children Act portrays a high court justice who starts to act unethically when her personal life blows up just before a big case.
At the festival, I talked to McEwan about the challenges and rewards of adapting On Chesil Beach, the importance of music to his storytelling, and why he prefers to work with directors who come from the theatre.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you get involved with adapting your own books?
Ian McEwan (IM): It’s just really by chance. It’s sort of the London bus factor, that they should come along at the same time. I worked on the adaptation of On Chesil Beach with Sam Mendes five or six years ago. He went off to make a Bond movie, I just moved onto other things. Then, it was revived through the producer and my agent. Very quickly, it sort of got on the road. Whereas The Children Act, I very much wanted to work with Richard Eyre again. We made The Plowman’s Lunch back in 1982, original script, mine. And before that, I’d done a screenplay for a television film for him in 1978.
Screenplays, writing for television and film, have been a kind of subroutine of my writing life for years. Right from the beginning, I’ve done it. I’ve worked with John Schlesinger. I’ve worked with Bertolucci, Mike Newell. I’ve written a screenplay for Hollywood called The Good Son. I’ve also been executive producer on other adaptations of mine, which other writers have done. So it’s always been there as part of my professional life.
But it is curious because not only do we have the two movies here, having their world premieres, but on the 24th of this month, Benedict Cumberbatch stars in an earlier novel of mine called The Child in Time, from 1987.
At Seventh Row, we regularly analyse how a film works as an adaptation of a novel. We looked at why High-Rise was a very stupid adaptation and how Mockingjay Part 1 lost too many of the nuances of the book. We looked at how Brooklyn and Gone Girl worked as excellent adaptations. And we’ve talked to writer-director Joachim Trier about making film more novelistic.