Playwright Patrick Marber wrote the screenplay of Zoe Heller’s book Notes on a Scandal. Both writers talked to me about the painful process of turning a novel into a film
Patrick Marber first met Zoë Heller in New York in 2003. Marber—a British playwright, comedian, actor and director—was there to work on the film version of his 1997 play, Closer. Heller was then the author of two novels. It was the second of these, the widely acclaimed Notes on a Scandal, that was the reason for their meeting. It is a dark, intricate tale of an embittered older teacher, Barbara Covett, who manipulates a younger teacher at her school, Sheba Hart, using her knowledge of Sheba’s illicit relationship with a pupil. Marber wanted to adapt it into a film. Heller agreed.
Cinematic adaptation is often considered original writing’s poor cousin. But the result, released in 2006, won critical approval and four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay. Now Marber is adapting Heller’s third novel, The Believers (2008), into a screenplay too. Set in New York, it follows the fortunes of a family of left-wing Jewish atheists headed by a campaigning lawyer called Joel and an English-born matriarch called Audrey. In June, I sat down with Marber and Heller in a stuffy room in the bowels of a central London hotel, and asked them to talk me through the sometimes painful process of adaptation.
Heller: There was this odd moment right at the end of the promotional tour for Notes on a Scandal, when we did this event in LA where they got me to read a section of my book and Patrick to read a section of his script. At the last minute I realised I didn’t have a copy of the book, so Patrick gave me his. I started flicking through and he’d written comments such as “Boring old crap…” or “Eh??”
Marber: It was my working copy. There were some scenes that were good in the novel but that I knew were not going to make it into the movie. They just weren’t going to.
Heller: Let me tell you, when you’re actually reading “Eh??”—it feels different. I could feel my cheeks going pink.
Marber: Actually Zoë is a model adaptee. Her dad [Lukas Heller] was a screenwriter, she’s married to a screenwriter [Larry Konner], she gets what people do. It must be so hard, though, to be an adaptee, because it must be impossible not to regard a screenplay as a sustained critique of your novel.
Nathan: There are some big differences between the film and the book. In the film, spinster Barbara [Judi Dench] is still the unreliable narrator who describes the affair her colleague Sheba [Cate Blanchett] has with a boy pupil. But the ending of the book is much darker than the ending of the movie.
Marber: Yes. In the book Sheba ends the novel as Barbara’s prisoner in a great big stucco mansion. I thought that was wrong for the film. I felt Barbara had to be returned to her hell-hole basement flat for the film to feel satisfying.
Nathan: Was there any studio pressure to change the ending to a more upbeat version? The book ends with Sheba living with Barbara.
Marber: We still sent Sheba to prison [for indecent assault on her pupil]. We were faithful to that.
Heller: But Sheba’s marriage survives in the film.
Marber: Not necessarily.
Heller: But in the film you see her husband [Bill Nighy] standing at the doorway of the house when she returns to him.
Marber: He takes her in; we don’t know if he’ll be waiting at the prison gates in six months.
Heller: My reading is different. I got the feeling in the film that the family closed ranks.
Marber: Possibly. I feel he takes her in because she’s got nowhere to go. We gave the script a Patricia Highsmith ending, whereas Zoë’s ending is more painful, more literary.
Heller: And utterly hopeless.
Marber: If it was an art house film I’d have fought tooth and nail for Zoë’s ending. But we were making a film for a Hollywood studio. They were supportive of the choices we wanted to make. They would have let us have that downbeat ending. So it wasn’t a studio decision. It wasn’t imposed. But everyone knew the film wasn’t working at certain points.
Heller: The main point is that it’s flattering to have anyone who is a highly intelligent writer, who knows about “the writing process,” taking a great and detailed interest in the stuff you’ve written and then make it into something new.
Marber: But I don’t expect to do better than the book. Screenwriting is a different thing. And when people say [Patrick puts on a stupid person's voice] “Is the film better than the book?” Of course it isn’t. I never think that. Though I do think there are films that are better than the books [that they are based on].
Nathan: Zoë, do you think the film is better than the book?
Marber: Don’t ask her that. It isn’t. It just isn’t.
Heller: I can answer that. Patrick solved problems that I had not succeeded in solving. In our first meeting I had to apologise for Sheba being a cipher. He made Sheba a much more fully realised character in the film. There were times I remember thinking “I wish I’d written that.” There was a scene when Sheba comes out of her family home on Christmas day and has this panicky conversation with the boy [her lover]. Sheba’s husband comes out and the boy says, “Who’s that, your dad?” and in a moment of vanity, Sheba says, “No, it’s my uncle.” It tells you so much in just two lines. So it is as good as the book. But the question is still wrong-headed because [novels and films] are two different forms.
Marber: The funny thing about that scene is that it wasn’t in the original script. It was shot much later. Cate Blanchett said, “That’s the worst acting I’ve done in this film.” She was really upset. But I think it’s one of her best scenes. Zoë’s right to identify it as key. It gets a lot of [narrative] cogs greased. So a lot of this is luck. I wish I’d put it in the original script but I didn’t.
Nathan: But you still wrote it.
Marber: With the benefit of already having spent $17m making a film that wasn’t quite working.
Nathan: Zoë, there must have been moments when you thought, what the hell has Patrick done to my story?
Heller: I set out with a typical writer’s disapproval like the people who stand outside premieres saying, “My book’s better.” But I think that’s being a bad sport. I also had a very honest conversation with Patrick who said: “It’s going to feel like a violation. I’m going to plunder your book.” I said, “I know what’s happening here. I’ve taken my money and made my choice.” We’re getting to this thing I wanted to talk about: the idea of faithfulness. I think it’s misplaced. A movie [adaptation] is taking something as a jumping-off point. And it may end up making a different genre of work. I think that’s OK. It’s a whole different set of artists working in a different form. I wouldn’t be so big-hearted about it if my book didn’t survive. But my book is still out there.
Marber: I always say: “Look, it’s a win-win. If the film is bad and no one sees it, it doesn’t do any harm to the book. If the film is good they will want to read the book.” The film is a remix. And Zoë had the right to adapt it herself.
Heller: I can’t think of anything more revolting.
Marber: Lots of novelists do.
Heller: It’s not my language. I don’t have an instinct for it. You do the thing you’re good at. What I really want to do is write prose. Write a good sentence. But yes, the very first time I saw the movie I had moments of… [Zoë raises her hands in mock horror]
Marber: I totally understand that feeling. Any time I see one of my plays directed by anyone who isn’t me there are things that are just “wrong”: that’s not what I mean; that’s not what I wrote; you’ve spun it on its head you bastards. Playwrights are uniquely able to understand the pain of the novelist.
Heller: In a way something similar happened with my book The Believers. It was the first time people drastically misinterpreted a crucial thing in one of my novels: the ending. Influential reviewers took me to task for “soap opera sentimentality.” I thought, “Isn’t it clear? This is someone being cynical.” I felt like starting seminars to instruct people on how to read the ending. Unbelievably maddening.
Nathan: You have both been noted, sometimes criticised for your cynicism.
Marber: What people say about Zoë’s work and mine is that they want to feel this humane heart behind the sarcasm, cynicism, misery and pain.
Nathan: You’re the man who wrote (in Closer): “Ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood.”
Marber: Zoë’s duty is to the truth. It’s the worst kind of bollocks to expect writers to show you that this is coming from a warm place.
Heller: I admit I have had nights wondering if I am a much meaner, bleaker, nastier person than I have given myself credit for. What people want from books is Oprahfication; a desire for people you want to be friends with. But this [the way Heller and Marber write] is not anti-humanist, it’s very humanist. I’m saying people are great but they are also these other things. People have said this a lot about my books.
Marber: And a lot about my plays. I’ve been accused of misanthropy… I just think it’s total bollocks. If you watch audiences watching my work, you see they are moved and held by a spell—on a good night. No one would like the work if it wasn’t truthful. And that’s what I love about Zoë’s work. She is not paying due diligence to the nice police. It was something that used to happen in theatre and it’s now crossed over to the novel. It’s a book club thing. There is something going on that is really bad, culturally.
Nathan: And are you Patrick similarly motivated by the urge to write a good sentence?
Marber: To write a line that’s funny or that is exactly what you meant to say gives you a pleasure unlike any other. Then when you see it in print and performed it is a whole other pleasure. But I don’t think I’m as addicted to it as I used to be. I don’t know why. I think to be success-driven is very vulgar. I’m happy with the level of success I’ve had.
Nathan: It doesn’t bother you that adaptation—for stage and screen—appears to have taken over from original playwriting?
Marber: No. I started out with small ambitions. My problem as a writer is I’ve achieved what I wanted to do. I just wanted a play at the National Theatre that people quite liked. I’m interested to know how Zoë feels about writing. Because now I think maybe I could do something else.
Heller: I know a very good writer who said, “I’m going to give up now. It’s hellish, I don’t think I’m that good and look…” She pulled from her handbag little linen lavender sashes. She said “I’m going to sell these online.”
Marber: I love that. I respect that.
Heller: I said very strongly that she shouldn’t do that.
Marber: I haven’t got a problem if I never write another original play. I haven’t written one for nearly ten years. I’ll just accept it. I’m very good at accepting my flaws. It’s one of the few things I’m good at. To write a play, I have to be burning to write it. And I think I might never burn again unless something so catastrophic or interesting happens in my life that it has to be written about.
Heller: I’d love to say that I burned to write. There has to be some kind of vainglorious idea that you have something to say, or that no one else has said it in quite that way. I took five years to write The Believers so I’m not exactly Speedy Gonzales. And no, I wasn’t burning a lot of the time. A lot of the time I was lying in a puddle of despair.
Nathan: And Patrick, you’re not inhibited from writing original work because of the expectations after all your success?
Marber: It’s not about expectation, it’s purely about waiting until there is a play I passionately want to write. It has got to come from what I laughingly call my soul. But if I had to give up writing tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the end of my world. I can direct, I can act, I could piss about. So I’m intrigued that Zoë envisages a long writing career.
Heller: No. I don’t envisage it. I aspire to it.