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The art of self adaptation

The art of self adaptation

The writers of novels that are transmuted to the screen are not usually entrusted with the screenplay. They are seen as too close, too involved and too wedded to their original words to see them cut or changed. Two recent Booker Prize winners have, however, bucked this state of affairs. Eleanor Catton has not just written the screenplay for the forthcoming television version of her mammoth The Luminaries but is also responsible for giving Jane Austen’s Emma a fresh cinematic twist, and her work has won high praise. Sally Rooney, meanwhile, is very much in the headlights for the small-screen version of her Normal People. Her adaptation, with Alice Birch, has won near universal critical plaudits – for the acting and the script. Indeed The Times critic went so far as to write: “I can say this without hesitation: this is one of those very rare occasions when the screen version thrashes the book.” It is meant as praise of course but it is nevertheless somewhat double edged.

Penelope Lively, winner of the 1987 Booker Prize with Moon Tiger, is using lockdown to bond with her granddaughter. The pair are taking it in turns to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to one another over video link. Lively’s granddaughter is not, however, a child – she’s 27. “We discovered that for some extraordinary reason she’d never read it in her childhood,” Lively says. “So we’re each taking it in turns to read a bit to each other – and thoroughly enjoying it.” When not spending time in Wonderland, Lively is reading another Booker Prize figure, the great Irish stylist William Trevor: “I suddenly realised there was a lot of him I’d never read, and I’d almost forgotten how amazingly good he is.” She is confident too that there’s some good to be found in the current circumstances: “I think this period, if it’s doing nothing else, is probably making reading a more central part of people’s lives than before.” Though, she hastens to add, reading on its own is not enough: “A glass of wine in the evening. That helps.”

A reminder, from the Booker Prize and Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro, of just what can be achieved in extraordinary circumstances. Back in 2014 Ishiguro revealed the circumstances in which he wrote The Remains of the Day. Fed up with a semi-productive writing life, Ishiguro and his wife Lorna came up with a plan: “I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a ‘Crash’,” he recalled. “During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitatively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.” The result was his celebrated novel which won the Booker Prize in 1989. The current lockdown, admittedly not self-imposed, has already gone on for five weeks and counting. So imagine how many future Booker Prize winners have already been written.