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Novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls, author of STARTER FOR TEN and ONE DAY, reveals why adapting his own work for the screen comes with its own unique set of challenges.
David Nicholls’ celebrated third novel, One Day, follows the friendship of Emma and Dexter, revisiting them every July 15th over a 20-year period. Nicholls has also penned the screenplay for the film, which stars Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway. movieScope caught up with him to chat about this hugely-anticipated project.
Why do you think One Day has connected with such a huge audience?
I think people respond to the fact that it’s quite an emotional book. That central situation of two people who ought to be together but can’t yet see it is the archetypal romantic comedy story, even if it doesn’t necessarily take the path you expect.
My concern was that it would only really appeal to 40-year-olds living in London, but it seems to make a [wider] connection. Everyone has had those confused moments, where they are not quite sure where they are going or who they want to be with.
The book feels very personal. Did the inspiration come from your own life?
There’s a little bit of my own experience, particularly in Emma. I came to writing quite late; like Emma I found my vocation in my early 30s and spent my 20s in London, and it was a rambling, confusing, depressing time. And I’ve certainly known a few Dexters! There are male friends of mine who have gone through those wilder periods of life and not necessarily escaped unscathed.
Also — and writers tend not to confess to this — [I draw] a lot of inspiration from other writers and archetypes. Emma’s role as the smartest person in the room but not necessarily the most confident is an archetype from lots of romantic comedies. I always bang on about Much Ado About Nothing, and there’s a bit of Pride and Prejudice and a bit of The Apartment and a bit of Annie Hall… Similarly the man who has a great deal of confidence but not necessarily a great deal of wisdom is also another archetype. I’ve taken a lot from movies and books that I love and, I hope, added something… It’s not all plagiarism!
The set-up of the book presents a snapshot of Emma and Dexter’s life every July 15th. Was it a challenge to ensure that the characters and their stories were well-rounded?
I did seven months of planning [and] the challenge was to have them change without having any sudden crunch of gears. The Dexter and Emma at the end of the book are very different from their 21-year-old selves, but also recognisably the same.
I think the other challenge was, often, when you’re writing comedy or romantic comedy, there’s a perceived wisdom about making characters likeable. I thought, particularly with Dexter, that I wanted to write a male character who was, for quite a lot of the book, obnoxious, but retains a sympathy as well. I wanted them to be something other than the generic hero and heroines of both romantic comedies.
And how did you ensure that the screenplay didn’t become episodic?
We did want to do all 20 days, but realised early on that some of the days would have to change. Emma, for instance, spends quite a lot of time in the book quite bored; on the page you can get away with that, because the character has an inner life, but on screen it was clear that would become relentless. If you gave each year five minutes, for example, 20 five-minute sketches would inevitably feel very episodic. We wanted a much more varied rhythm. There were seven or eight key years in their relationship, confrontations or reunions or reconciliations that we decided to focus on. And some of the other years are dealt with very quickly.
Reading a book, it’s fine to get to the end of the chapter and put the book down. On screen you never want that end-of-chapter feel, you always want it to feel like it’s continuous action. In fact, in early cuts of the film we had captions, and it did rather feel like a curtain coming down and rising again; that very quickly became a bit repetitive. We did a lot of work in the edit of smoothing that out, of making it feel like you’re watching the story, and the fact that it was happening on the same day was fairly incidental.
You have previously adapted other people’s works in your role of screenwriter; is it harder to do that than to adapt your own books?
I think it’s harder [to adapt your own work]. The only analogy I can come up with is that it’s a bit like cutting your own hair; it’s quite hard to get the distance and the objectivity. There’s always a voice in the back of your head saying, ‘Well, it works in the book.’ And you have certain images and scenarios fixed in your head. With another person’s work, you are much more objective. I’ve been lucky enough to adapt great novels [like] Great Expectations and Tess [of the D’Urbervilles], and there my screenwriting feels much more editorial. It’s much more about selecting and shaping the material rather than creating.
This is the second of your books that has become a film, after Starter for Ten. Do you approach your novel-writing with an eye to potential adaptation?
I always end up sounding defensive about this, but I genuinely don’t. Most of the people who read the [One Day] manuscript said it was unadaptable for various reasons. One was that it’s hard to find an actor who can look convincingly 22 and 41. I think if I had had the film in mind, I would have set it over 10 years — and not had the section set in India!
One of the biggest challenges in putting it on screen was that [in the book] there is a lot of inner monologue and internal justification for behaviour. Often when Emma and Dexter are being awful, they have a voice in their heads saying, ‘Why am I being awful?’ If you put that on screen, you just have the bad behaviour. Of course, you can get that from a performance, but I was pretty sure that it was just going to be a book.
I suppose the flip side of that is that I am really influenced by cinema, and I’m sure that I’ve absorbed a lot of the grammar of film into my prose; point of view and how you start and end a scene, and pacing and the emphasis on dialogue. There’s nothing I can do about it, but I’m quite prepared for my next book to be entirely unadaptable! •