My advice is this; if you get two of your heroes in a room, bring along a film camera and plenty of tape. Luckily, this is exactly what I had done the day that novelist Jonathan Coe, Guest Artistic Director 2011, and Francine Stock, Guest Artistic Director 2012, met to discuss From Page to Screen. Seeing an opportunity to bring together Bridport’s twin loves of film and literature in celebration of the process of adaptation, from book to screenplay to finished film, founders Nic Jeune, Steven Horner and Lindsay Brookes came up with the concept of Bridport’s Film Festival. The first event in 2007 was part of the Bridport Literary Festival; since then the festival has been standing alone, and growing in ambition and confidence, allowing it to sneak into the film world’s cultural calendar (this year marked by the involvement of Bafta for an event with screenwriter Moira Buffini at a screening of her film Jane Eyre).
Francine opened their conversation by asking Jonathan how he felt when he was asked to Guest Direct. “To be involved was just a fantastic opportunity; film and the novel specifically are my two real passions and the idea of a festival that brought both of these together and enabled you to think a little bit and talk a little bit about the nature of the marriage between the two was just perfect”. Bringing this enthusiasm to the programme, Jonathan invited Booker Prize Winners (Kazuo Ishiguro), Bafta winners (Bill Forsyth), screenwriters and directors to join him at screenings of their films. The festival was a rip-roaring success. But there’s no doubt that Francine can fill the boots Jonathan has left by the back door. As presenter of Radio 4’s The Film Programme and author of this year’s In Glorious Technicolor, she is a mine of film knowledge. She, like Jonathan, is drawn in by the kernel at the heart of the festival. “I love it when people talk about films afterwards” she says. “I think it should be a communal experience; some kind of discussion does seem to be part of the process of cinema. If you can get a discussion with the writers as well, especially if there are books where people feel they have some kind of ownership because they’ve already read them then it’s just like a 3D book club isn’t it?.”
I’d brought Jonathan and Francine together in order to hand over the reins of directorship, and for Jonathan to impart some pearls of wisdom on how to survive among the Bridport literati, but their conversation soon turned to the question at the centre of From Page to Screen. “It made me think a lot about what a good adaptation is” says Francine. “I came across a quote from Virginia Woolf on seeing an early adaptation of Anna Karenina; ‘a fur stole and a string of pearls does not make Anna Karenina!’ But then I thought, she’s kind of missing it, because it’s the way that that stole is worn that says with one shot something that might take pages and pages to do.” “Yes” agrees Jonathan “as someone who has had two of his novels adapted, you do realise that—you can look at a single frame of an adaptation of one of your books and think, that is actually a better rendition of everything I was trying to convey and that took me two chapters; it makes you realise films’ strengths as well as its weaknesses and limitations”. Hence a good adaptation can use the tools at cinema’s disposal—visuals, sound, music—to re-invent the story and actually add something to it.
But it’s not always that easy. Fired by the emotional attachment we all have to our favourite books, there often comes an instinctive distrust of adaptation; do we want to see someone messing around with them? Someone else’s vision of our beloved characters, our favourite moments? Is it true that “The Book is Always Better”, as diehards claim? Joe Dunthorne, whose novel Submarine went on to become an award winning film said after his appearance at the Bridport Open Book Festival “Like many people I have a fear of seeing my favourite books turned into films. I dare not watch The Road or Revolutionary Road for fear of destroying my perfect memories of the books”. It’s always a fertile ground for discussion, for debate, for argument, and, just occasionally for acceptance that the film CAN be as good, or even better than, the book.
This emotional attachment in part explains why the film industry falls on literary sources with such a passion when it casts about for a new project. In the early stages of planning, the festival’s committee drew up a list that showed that 80% or 90% of the year’s releases would be based on books. “It was slightly shocking really” says Jonathan; “you would hope that cinema as the mature art form that it now is had found its own way of originating stories but in fact so much of modern film is still based on literary sources and cannibalising literary sources and producing travesties of literary sources and then very occasionally respecting the material and getting it absolutely right”.
And how to go about getting it absolutely right? Every screenwriter approaches it differently; over the years, we’ve certainly learnt that. Jonathan quotes Hitchcock; “his approach to adaptation was to read a book once and then toss it aside and just remember the outlines of the story and reinvent it completely in cinematic terms. In a way, this is the obvious and right way to go about it”. But at the other end of the scale, those who were there will always remember Bill Forsyth at the Electric Palace at last year’s festival, drawing a battered old copy of Housekeeping out of his plastic bag on the stage, dissected and filleted, the passages he loved the most actually cut out and stuck into a scrapbook. In an article in Movie Maker last year, Rowan Joffe (who closed the 2011 festival with a sell-out screening of his film Brighton Rock) said he is constantly going back to the author to find out what his or her solution to a particular narrative challenge is. “By the time I finish adapting a book” he said, “the novel itself has been everywhere with me for at least six months, is covered in notes and highlights and has been inadvertently dropped in the tub at least twice”.
One element of this different approach for the screenwriter is the decision to stick rigidly to the text or simply stay faithful to what Graham Greene as master adapter of not least, The Third Man, calls “the spirit of the novel”. “I quite like the ones where the film maker has done something completely different” says Francine, “those slightly oblique takes on books where you feel that the director and whoever has written the screenplay has had the freedom to do something else but has captured the mood of it; it sneaks up on you unawares so you suddenly realise, oh! That’s what it was all along”. Hence there will be a strand of “undercover” films at the festival. This is the opposite to Jonathan’s aims in his programme; “what I wanted to do with my choices was to find the exception to Hitchcock’s approach… adaptations that had stayed faithful to the novel and found a way of fully reimagining them for the cinema”. These differences in approach are what makes having the personalised stamp of a Guest Director such a fascinating addition.
And what better place for it than Bridport? We love a festival, as we well know from the profligacy of literary festivals, the hat festival, the food festivals—but for Jonathan as last year’s Guest Director and a newcomer to Bridport, the way the town embraced From Page to Screen came as a pleasant surprise. “For those four or five or six days in Bridport, it has such a buzz around it and it becomes the focal point of the town. You have a sense that that discussion is going on all the time all around you. Frequently I would leave the screenings and come back to my hotel and sit in the bar and meet with whoever I was meant to be introducing next on stage and the conversations on the tables that you would hear around you were—oh that film was a load of rubbish or wow I’m really glad to have had the opportunity to have seen that on the big screen. The festival does become a very living thing in the days that it is taking place”. Francine’s eyes have lit up, and her passion for the programming is re-invigorated. It promises guests including Olivia Hetreed (screenwriter of this year’s Wuthering Heights) author Paul Torday and Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) on Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Owen Sheers and Amit Gupta, author/screenwriter/directing team behind Resistance, as well as other big names in the pipeline.
And the festival will be keeping faithful to the screenings of lesser seen films too; “is there an adaptation you’re determined to get into the programme?” Jonathan asks “well…” Francine says, smiling, “I must say, finding the excuse to show Renoir’s La Bete Humaine—that I would love to do. It’s a wonderful convergence of politics and Freud and a fantastic Zola story. Just at that point in 1938, it’s all coming together beautifully—this is the birth of film noire but it doesn’t know it yet”. That’s excuse enough for us; on the 11th April, La Bete Humaine will take the opening night slot in this year’s festival.
Visit the website to see the filmed interview between Francine Stock and Jonathan Coe, as well as up to date programming news.