David Nicholls is a novelist and screenwriter. His books include One Day and Starter for Ten, both which he has adapted to screen. TV credits include a modern version of Much Ado about Nothing, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both for the BBC. He has had two BAFTA nominations to date. Before turning to writing, Nicholls trained as an actor.
As both a novelist and a screenwriter, how do the editorial approaches to these mediums vary; is either more or less collaborative than the other? As a writer, does one medium offer you more creative control than the other?
Screenwriting is intensely collaborative, which is both its joy and its frustration. Unlike a novel, a screenplay serves no purpose except to be interpreted by someone else. It’s an instruction manual, a transcription of the film that plays in your head – ‘place this person in this location, make them say or do this at a particular time of day, in the rain perhaps, then go to this next scene.’ Within that framework, there are limitless possibilities. With the novel, you are the costume designer, the director, the head of casting, the musical co-ordinator. Of course there is input from other people, and I personally value that very much, but you’re in charge. For the most part, this is wonderful. But if the novel doesn’t work, you can’t blame the director.
Is there such a thing as too much or too little involvement in the PR or marketing of your novel or screenplay? How involved are you likely to be?
In film, very very little. The screenwriter is on a level with the cinematographer and the designer, and certainly below the director. Even the most ardent film fan will have trouble naming ten screenwriters – they probably know the names of more composers than writers. It’s rare for the screenwriter to go to festivals or on press junkets, but this is not necessarily a complaint. Film has always been a director’s medium, and actors are generally better-looking. But it is strange that the person who ‘authors’ the piece should get so little attention. TV is slightly different – the volumes are greater, there are limits on directorial interpretation, and TV writers generally have more control and involvement in all aspects of production, PR and marketing.
Personally, I have no desire to read JD Salinger’s twitter feed.
With novels, there seems to be a whole roadshow attached to the publication, and as an author it’s hard to be entirely hands-off. It can be a problem, I think. I’m sure most authors want a say in their cover designs – it seems to be the biggest source of friction between writer and publisher, though I’ve always been consulted and involved. Self-promotion can sometimes get a little out of hand. Certainly I couldn’t write a word of fiction for some time after the last book came out, but if the alternative is obscurity and lower sales, what choice does an author have? I’m very lucky to get that attention, and I really enjoy meeting readers and attending book festivals – work that isn’t really work. But it’s also important to support authors with a quieter demeanour, and to let the work speak for itself. I hope we don’t find ourselves in a situation where only the loudest are heard. I hope novelists retain the right to be left alone. Personally, I have no desire to read JD Salinger’s twitter feed.
You’ve adapted Great Expectations, Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd (currently in production) for screen. What is your approach to adapting the work of someone as illustrious as Hardy; do you rely on your own ideas and interpretations of the text, or consider the expectations of your potential audience?
It depends on the project. I adapted Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father, a wonderful, moving book but not rich in plot, so a certain degree of shaping was involved. I was asked to write a TV play loosely based on Much Ado About Nothing, one of my favourite plays, and though I love the original, the whole purpose of the project was to have fun with the material – consequently that’s an extremely free adaptation, more of an original play ‘inspired by -‘ than a straightforward adaptation. Great Expectations was about as faithful as you can be in 120 minutes – there’s hardly anything that isn’t taken from the novel, but the interpretation comes from the selection of material. A ‘faithful’ film would be twelve hours long. But Great Expectations is, I think, an almost perfect work of art. Madding Crowd is wonderful, but much more problematic – it has wild changes in tone, crazy melodrama, a lot of low-comedy. I’ve been encouraged to be a little more irreverent with the material, though there’s still very, very little that isn’t in the original. Adaptation is all about striking this balance – capturing the original while also altering it to work in an entirely different medium.