If you are going to turn one of your novels into a movie then you might as well throw the original away and start from scratch – because that’s the only way it usually works.
This was the surprising message from novelist turned film and TV adaptor Deborah Moggach on Saturday, when she had the audience at Marlborough town hall hooting with delight as she described the madcap world of film-making.
Almost like that of a stand-up comedienne, Deborah’s sparkling performance provided waves of laughter from the capacity audience at the Marlborough LitFest event in the town hall.
She set the tone by telling them: “Yours is the most gorgeous High Street in Britain. I spent an hour and a half wandering round and spent an enormous amount of money on clothes in the shops. Good old Marlborough, I say.”
And they warmed even more when she revealed: “Tom Stoppard adapted my novel Tulip Fever. And lovely though it is, it’s rather like someone rifling your knicker drawer when you are not there, even Tom Stoppard, though I’d rather like him to rifle my knicker draw anyway.”
But adapting a novel, whether her own or someone else’s, was rather like poacher turned gamekeeper. She felt resentful at first when the latest of her 16 novels, These Foolish Things, was made into a film, to be released in March, called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
“But in the end it works and you walk off with the money,” admitted Deborah, whose film and TV screenplays have included Pride and Prejudice, Love in a Cold Climate and The Diary of Anne Frank.
“You are the person without whom it would not exist. You have to be very pragmatic. You can’t be precious about your work, because everything is going to be changed all the time.”
“The first draft of a screen play is often very faithful to the book but what I do is literally throw the book away after the first draft and never go back to it.”
“Otherwise, you are being regressive, you are going back into that interior world of the novel. Your first draft is the genesis of the film and it is that that you work on and each draft makes it more into a screen play.”
“As a screenwriter you are creating a blueprint for what then happens, and once you have completed your screen play you are really surplus to requirements.”
“It’s a weird thing that happens when you have to turn the interior world of a novel to the exterior world of conflict and dramatic driven action which is a film.”
She became interested in writing for television and the cinema “because a novelist’s life is a lonely one, solitary, and you’re all by yourself,” she explained. “I am rather gregarious and I hanker to be one of the team, which I am pathetically longing to be all the time.”
However, she found herself surplus to requirements visiting the set of the new movie – it stars Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Celia Imre – which is based on her original entrepreneurial idea of outsourcing Britain’s elderly to a retirement home in Bangalore and seeing how it transforms their lives.
“When I saw the film it has great oomph to it and is really very good,” she enthused. “But in the end it isn’t recognisable as anything that I wrote.”
There have been compensations. Donald Sutherland held her hand when she visited a potato warehouse in Peterborough, the setting for the assembly ball scene in Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett, whom Jane Austen created as a plain girl desperately in search of a husband.
The world of fantasy changes all that, she discovered, Hollywood being “full of fear and Chinese whispers” when Steven Spielberg wanted to make a $48 million version of her novel, Tulip Fever. It had to be abandoned when Chancellor Gordon Brown wiped out the tax loophole that enabled foreign investment to benefit.
“If you get fed up because producers constantly sack you or mess you about and you get really p****d off, then you can go back into that private world where nobody is looking over your shoulder, nobody is changing things and nobody is saying we can’t possible shoot that in Hawaii,” she concluded.