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 filmby John Nathan / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
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…