Ian McEwan on Adapting His Own Novels and Script Notes That Drive Him "Mad"

Urszula Soltys

'The Children Act' novelist and screenwriter reflects on what he's learned about endings and studio execs' suggestions: "They were all formed out of a pattern, as if they’d all taken Screenwriting 101 years ago."

After penning 14 novels and winning the Man Booker Prize, Ian McEwan seemingly doesn't have much left to prove. Still, the author says, "I don’t think I've ever worked harder in my life" than in 2018. This year, three film and television adaptations of McEwan's books — two of which he wrote the screenplays for — are rolling out while just last week, McEwan finished another novel. "So yes, it's been quite an interesting year," he says.

The latest of McEwan's works to be released is The Children Act, his own adaptation of his 2014 novella about a judge deciding on a right-to-die case. The film, released in theaters and on VOD today, roughly follows the plot points of the short novel, with a few exceptions: When a 17-year-old boy and Jehovah's Witness (Fionn Whitehead) refuses a potentially life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds, judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) must deliberate on whether to force him to accept the treatment or let him make his own decision, months shy of his 18th birthday. As she faces trouble at home, Maye takes the unusual step of visiting the boy at his bedside, a decision that will have lasting and unintended consequences.

Plot aside, The Children Act also sees McEwan working on his own terms to adapt one of his stories. After 12 screen adaptations of his books, inside and outside of Hollywood, McEwan says he's determined the best way to work in the movie business: with close friends, "in a kind of intimacy and extended negotiation that is never going to break a friendship apart." (The process of negotiating ideas on The Children Act was "animated" but stopped short of hostile, he says.)

Right before the New York premiere of The Children Act, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to McEwan about what he's learned from screenwriting, his experiences in Hollywood and why it's easier to end a novel than a film.

You’ve adapted your books into films only twice before, with The Innocent and On Chesil Beach. What galvanized you to take that step with The Children Act?

Partly I wanted to work with my friend Richard Eyre again, and I was looking for something we could both do. Years back we made a couple of movies — one was called The Imitation Game, long before the more recent one, and then we made a state-of-the-nation movie in the early 1980s called The Ploughman's Lunch — and we've been friends ever since. So I gave Richard the novel when it was still in its penultimate draft and said that I thought there was a movie in here, and did he agree? And if so, would he like to direct it?

Second to that is that I’ve always held strongly to the belief that the novella, or the short novel, is in some ways ideal material — if it's got the plotlines and characters, et cetera — for a screenplay. Structurally, I think the screenplay is a kind of novella, that's how I approach it.

And for a rather more negative reason, there was already some interest in it [from filmmakers], and I thought, if I don’t do it, someone else will, and I wouldn't like that. Right from the beginning, it was a dog-in-the-manger approach that I wanted to do this and I only wanted Richard to direct, so that's how we got going.

With The Children Act and other instances when you've adapted your own novel, do you discover anything new about the story or characters in the screenplay format, as opposed to the novel format?

Yes, in a way. Especially with The Children Act, a lot of it is run through the mind of the judge, Fiona Maye, and that has to be translated into dialogue scenes, or scenes that somehow illuminate what the novel is privileged to do purely as a line of consciousness. So I find I'm really forced to confront the characters from the outside and really see this judge Fiona Maye, and everything she sees and does.

Also there's always that opportunity to go back and do things a little differently, and that's true with On Chesil Beach. There were one or two ideas I had with that, where, if I thought of them at the time, I probably would have included them in the novel. There's a kind of reverse process.

You [also] get impelled to a greater accuracy in a movie: I had the help of a very renowned, now-retired judge, Alan Ward, when I was writing the novel, and then we got him on board to help us with the movie. When you've actually got to see everything, when it's so literal as cinema is, you have to get things bang-on right: what people are wearing, how the courtroom looks. That’s a kind of discovery in itself.

Cinema demands something differently about endings. So in The Children Act the novel, the boy’s death or impending death is very much offstage — he sort of vanishes from the novel in the last third and everything is played through the mind of Fiona. That really wouldn't work dramatically, and so I changed the novel to have the judge go to the boy’s bedside, and so that she gets the news halfway through the Christmas concert. And likewise in On Chesil Beach, I found it more interesting to have the elderly man, Edward, see one last time the woman he once loved 40 years ago and screwed everything up by skulking on the beach. It was useful to dramatize that moment and really see it again. So, for me, writing a screenplay is a way of really laying out the whole corpse and bringing it back to life in a different way.

What limitations do you find in writing a script versus writing a book?

There's a huge difference. First of all, [one discrepancy] is that a novel is a finished, literally stand-alone thing, and the novelist is the sole maker of it — one takes notes from an editor but on the whole, it’s all yours. I think of a screenplay as more like a recipe, but not the meal itself. I don't find that frustrating because I have this other life as a novelist and I’ve spent plenty of time alone playing God, and actually writing a screenplay is an opportunity to work alongside others, which is quite refreshing.

We have conventions of moviemaking — although it’s beginning to change, especially in television — in which the writer is very much secondary to the director. We have had an auteur notion of moviemaking for many years now. I did occasionally find that frustrating long ago, but no longer, I just work within it. The trick for me, and I’ve been very lucky in this, is if you have a film director who has his roots in the theater, as Richard Eyre does and [On Chesil Beach director] Dominic Cooke does, they have a different relationship with the writer. Some film directors want to treat the screenwriter as a kind of secretary to their imagination; I couldn't bear to work like that. Theater directors really do see a screenplay as a play and they want to work on the best way to bring the play to the screen and work with the writer to do that. It’s a very different matter. I've been lucky to work with theater directors who love cinema.

When adapting your own books, versus providing the source material that another team is working on, how is your collaboration with directors and producers different? 

I take a softer view, really. For example, just to keep it in the realm of actual practice, sitting down with Emma Thompson and Richard Eyre for our first real go beyond the cast and crew assembly and read-through: When we sat down in her kitchen and read through the whole thing, as soon as there’s the warmth of voice of a fine actor reading your lines, you see almost immediately that you have more than you need. I’m very happy with that process of reduction once you have that expression and tone conveying emotion to get the lines themselves to sit comfortably with the actor. I’m not one of those screenwriters who fights for that last line to keep everything that was written. I’m really up for the process of letting some kind of emotional warmth, human, communicative warmth, take the place of all the lines you have. So it’s very, very different from writing a novel, where I just feel I’ve made my own universe and no one really can tell me what to do.

Did you have any actors or actresses in mind for the story’s characters while you were writing the script?

For On Chesil Beach, I always had Saoirse Ronan in mind: We'd worked together on Atonement and she now was of an age that was perfect for the part. So I was delighted when Dominic Cooke went over to New York and met her and emailed me just "Yes!" [in response.] That was great.

Richard and I sat around a good while and Emma was right at the top of our list, but we never assumed that we would say yes. She wasn’t there when I was writing the novel; when I was writing the screenplay, Richard and I were already talking about casting it before I was even typing the first page. I’m not sure that it made any difference to the writing itself, but as I went through the first and second drafts, we hoped more and more strongly that Emma would say yes. And then of course, she made the role. And she sort of kidnaps the part. That's partly because when I wrote the novel, I'm in the head of that judge looking out. I don't have a very, very clear idea of what she looked like; it wasn't necessary to think about how she looked. Now that that's all there, I can’t pick up a copy of The Children Act and not hear and see Emma now. That beautiful capacity she has in her silences to give you the flow of thoughts — that's always the thing you lose. The novel is a great form of interior states; finding an equivalent for that in film creates a huge dependency on great actors.

Did you and Richard Eyre talk about any aesthetic inspirations or predecessors for this film?

We wanted to treat our audience as grown-ups. We wanted to make a grown-up movie about a set of moral issues in which we would pose questions rather than answer them. We had in mind that we wanted our London to look stylish in the way that Paris would be in those old Truffaut movies with Jean-Pierre Leaud. And in fact that is the case around the Royal Courts of Justice, it's one of the most beautiful parts of London.

We thought a lot about, for example, the first time we take a camera on a walk with the judge as she walks from her house in Gray's Inn to the Royal Courts of Justice. And part of the atmosphere of that was to play it against the Bach "Partita" at walking pace. So, yes, [we wanted to create] a stylishness to set against the private anguish of a judge who still has to get through the morning and preside over six or seven cases. Her mind is on her deteriorating domestic circumstance, and [we wanted to] surround that with a kind of taken-for-granted elegance. We talked about this a lot, actually, and I think Richard achieves it wonderfully.

Did the production company offer you many notes on the script and if so, what was that process like?

The process was sort of animated, [though] nobody slammed any doors. We were with a production company headed by Duncan Kenworthy, and Duncan is one of those producers who gets very deeply involved in the development. So it was quite useful, because often Richard and I would reach conclusions and thought we'd solved everything, and Duncan would come and raise questions and problems for us, which we would then go away, take seriously and solve. Maybe not in the way that Duncan initially thought we would solve, but we would come back with something we thought was better than what he was suggesting and what we had originally conceived. It was sometimes passionate, but I don’t think it was ever really hostile.

I used to write in Hollywood and sometimes the notes used to drive me mad because they were all formed out of a pattern, as if they’d all taken Screenwriting 101 years ago. "When is he going to have his moment?" "What is this character's learning curve?" It used to just drive me nuts because I didn't think there was any real thought behind it, these were just buttons that were being pressed. This was much messier, in a way; we just talked our way into the script that we were all happy with. And we remain friends; that was quite an achievement.

Do you learn anything different about storytelling from writing scripts versus writing novels?

I think this particularly applies to endings. You can fade out of a novel with a lot of ambiguity and a kind of lyricism that distracts the reader. The reader of a novel knows there's only one page left, that's part of the experience: Even if you're reading on a Kindle, it says, "99 percent of this novel is read." With a movie, you might sense that things are gathering toward an end, but there’s a specificity [to the ending]. I just think hard and fresh about where we bow out on those.

I've thought quite a lot about endings and about how there's no way to hide. You've got to convey what it is you mean, and if you mean an open-ended ending in which certain things are not resolved, you’ve got to find a visual equivalent for that. There’s something about cinema that really puts a burden on those final scenes that make you alive to everything that’s gone before — it's got to be somehow carried right there. It’s easier in novels, I think. Cinema is so literal: I suppose what we’re saying in cinema is, 'This is what it would be like if you were a fly on the wall or if you were standing nearby, this is how it would look, these are the meanings.' There’s a way of avoiding all that in a novel. So I learned to think harder about endings.

Are you working on or thinking about any other screenplays now?

I’ve done a screenplay of another novel of mine called Sweet Tooth, which is a Cold War novel, and it’s with Working Title and they are thinking about it. But at the moment, my head has been full of finishing a novel, which I did last week.

I've got to say, 2018 was the year I turned 70 and I don’t think I've ever worked harder in my life. It's extraordinary. We've been doing these two movies, and we also had The Child in Time with Benedict Cumberbatch a bit earlier in the year, and all the while I was steaming ahead trying to write the novel at the same time. Now we’ve reached this moment where we’ve got the premiere this evening here in New York, and then I'm flying back to England.

So, yeah, it’s been quite an interesting year. If you can get it right — and it is very hard to get it right — the balance between the lonely slog of sitting alone in a room with ghosts and writing a novel and then working with others on a movie really does work out very nicely. It often doesn’t work because it's so hard to control the timing for when a movie gets going; there’s often a long period of languishing, and then suddenly everything comes together — the money is there, there's a controlled panic and it might cut across all your plans for novel-writing, so you have to be ready for that. But otherwise, when it does work out, it's very emotionally satisfying.

You said you just finished a novel — can you tell us anything about it?

It’s a kind of scientific novel set in the past, in 1982. And it's a counterfactual [fiction] in which we had more technology in the realm of AI in 1982 than we have now. It's playing with history and what it would be like to live with artificial intelligence. It's a time when Alan Turing did not die in 1952 but actually becomes the central figure of the computer-science revolution — so it becomes possible to have androids at the time of President Carter, for instance. Carter does a second term, and the Falklands War is lost, and [Margaret] Thatcher only serves one term. That's all the background to a story about a three-way love affair and what it's like to get betrayed by a robot.

Is there anything you want to add?

Finally, if you cannot work in film without the structure of friendship, I think it’s not worth doing. I had a brief time in Hollywood with a movie I wrote called The Good Son with Macaulay Culkin years ago, and that didn’t occur within the frameworks of friendship, it was a whole other world that was fascinating [though] I'm glad I went through it. It's more like being in the court of the Borgias, where people are quite grand in their schemes. And I really felt like an innocent at large, in a way. I know the Henry James model always was the innocent American comes to old Europe and finds knowledge and betrayal: Well, I felt I was in a Henry James novel in reverse, where an innocent Englishman comes from the ancient courts of moviemaking and learns a little bit about just what goes on, and it was quite enjoyable. But I much prefer to work on smaller budgets with close friends in a kind of intimacy and extended negotiation that is never going to break a friendship apart.