I watched John Crowley’s film version of Colm Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn, again the other night, after reading an interview with Toibin in The Guardian Review. I was particularly interested in his remarks concerning the screenplay, written by Nick Hornby, and the ways in which the film’s ending differs from the original.
Unable to find suitable work at home, Eilis [Ey-lish] has emigrated from her home in south-east Ireland to Brooklyn, where a priest has found her both employment and somewhere to live. Once settled, she falls into a relationship with Tony, a young man of Italian descent, and, though uncertain of her feelings, when she is called back to Ireland due to the death of her sister, she agrees to marry him, hastily and secretly, before she leaves. Once home, she resumes her old life with a new maturity and greater self-confidence; a good job presents itself, along with a dependable man of a higher station, whom she likes and who would marry her. She has not told anyone – not the man, not her mother – that she is already married. It’s as if she herself has forgotten: has chosen to forget. Her husband’s letters are shut away, unopened, in a drawer. But gossip and rumour seek her out and Eilis has to decide what to do, which course to take. In this, her dilemma is not unlike that of Isabel Archer at the end of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady [both author and novel much beloved of Toibin] though Tony the plumber is, thankfully, neither as mendacious nor manipulating as Gilbert Osmond.
In both novel and film, she returns to America: there seems to be no viable alternative. But in the novel, her feelings about this are ambivalent at best; the film recasts this in the far more positive light of an inescapably happy ending. Eilis, unburdened by doubt, stands in bright light on the opposite side of the street from the building supplies store from which Tony and one of his brothers emerge, talking; it takes a few moments for the brother, and then Tony, to realise Eilis is there. Almost unable to believe his eyes, Tony, bedazzled, hastens into Eilis’ arms and the final clinch of an unambiguously happy ending.
What does Colm Toibin think of this?
“I’m interested in what Nick [Hornby] did with the structure of it,” says Toibin, “which is so brilliant; how much he left out, how he moved the drama on. But I tear up for the very last section, that I didn’t write.” He doesn’t mind that it changed the novel? “It’s gorgeous. And what were they meant to do, have an ending with her sitting on the train feeling smug: look what I’ve just done to everybody?”
This recognition that different forms of media have different requirements is something that writers perhaps find easier to accommodate than readers, whose reaction, more often than not, is less generous, less understanding; they are more likely to want the film, radio or television version to be as close to the original as possible and expect the author to feel the same.
Over the past years I’ve adapted the work of a number of authors: Arnold Bennett and Ruth Rendell for TV; Graham Greene, Paul Scott, Qiu Xiaolong and A. S. Byatt for radio. The majority of those, sadly, are no longer in a position to complain, and those that are, to the best of my knowledge, have refrained. When Antonia Byatt’s Frederica Quartet was being broadcast, and she was asked about it on Woman’s Hour, she was careful to make clear – before making comments which were, thankfully, positive – that’s John Harvey’s Frederica Quartet, not mine.
With other writers’ work, my process has always been to strip the story down it basic elements, then begin to build it up from there, with the demands – strengths and weaknesses – of the particular medium in mind. Where adapting my own work is concerned – two books for television, two books and three short stories for radio – I think I have been more successful with the latter. When I was writing the screenplays based on the first two Resnick novels, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, I was guilty of forgetting my own rules at times and sticking too close to the originals; favouring a speech, a scene, an exchange of dialogue, because I liked it rather than because it contributed towards an effective piece of film. Which is why, whenever the Resnick books have been optioned by this or that television company since – as has fairly frequently been the case – and I’ve been asked if I would be interested in writing one or more of the scripts, I’ve always said thanks, but no thanks – someone else, experienced and coming to it with a fresh eye, will likely do it better.