Robert Harris: ‘That’s what I most enjoy – to take something real and bring it alive’
No novelist would dare dream up the Dreyfus affair, the spy scandal that engulfed France, but the author of ‘Fatherland’, ‘Enigma’ and ‘Ghost’ effectively tells its story in his new book, ‘An Officer and a Spy’
“I think that makes the story more interesting,” says Harris. “The Hollywood, schmaltzy version would be a man who starts off anti-Semitic, is moved by the nobility of Dreyfus, and determines to free him. But the reality is more interesting than that. Picquart didn’t act out of any great sympathy for Dreyfus. He acted because he believed that what had happened was wrong and that to conceal the wrong would do grave damage to the army.”
It’s no surprise that he has mentioned the movies. Harris’s novels have done well in transferring to screens large and small. Fatherland was made into an HBO TV series in 1994. Archangel was adapted by the BBC in a version that starred Daniel Craig. Enigma, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, became a feature starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet. The Ghost, with Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams, was directed by Roman Polanski – and it was a lunchtime conversation with Polanski that gave Harris the impetus to write An Officer and a Spy.
But not even Polanski could guarantee the making of the film version of Pompeii, which, though announced at the Cannes festival in 2007, fell victim to an actors’ strike and has never been resuscitated. Harris has already begun work, with the director, on a screenplay for An Officer and a Spy – snappily entitled D – and the chances for this book are, he says, better than average.
In the more immediate future, there’s good news for fans of Harris’s Cicero trilogy, which began a decade ago with Imperium and continued with Lustrum, published in 2009. “My next printed book will be, God willing, the third part of the Cicero trilogy,” Harris says. “I’ve started work on it, I’m passionate about it and I want to get it finished. I’m sorry it’s taken so long. But, in a way, at least I’ve grown old as Cicero has grown old.”
An Officer and a Spy is published by Hutchinson