Culture Shock: Why Irish novels are such a box-office draw

‘Brooklyn’, ‘Room’ and ‘The Secret Scripture’ all have unapologetically literary sources

The three Irish films that will make the most impact over the next 12 months look likely to be John Crowley's Brooklyn, Lenny Abrahamson's Room and Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture. What they have in common is obvious enough: they're all based on recent Irish novels. And not just novels of any kind but flagrantly, unapologetically literary novels. The novelists in question – Colm Tóibín, Emma Donoghue and Sebastian Barry – are serious, self-conscious artists. Their styles in these books are very different: Tóibín's pared and honed austerity, Donoghue's brilliant baby language, Barry's richly textured, almost poetic prose. But these are books that are worked through sentence by sentence, each one of those lines existing for its own sake before it serves any external purpose.

It’s easy at times to think that Irish culture is excessively literary, that the prestige of high-art writing here comes at the expense of everything else: of physical and verbal forms, of art music, of nonliterary theatre, even of writing in genres outside the canon. Such thoughts are not unreasonable. But serious, hard, lonely writing in prose, drama and poetry happens to be one of the things that Irish culture does extraordinarily well. And, as the arrival of these three movies suggests, it doesn’t really crowd out anything else. On the contrary, it’s a rich resource for other forms.

The fascinating thing about Brooklyn is not that the film changes some things in Tóibín's novel but that it changes remarkably little. The ending is more unambiguous and upbeat than it is in the book. But Crowley and his scriptwriter, Nick Hornby, have placed enormous trust in Tóibín's book, not just in the way they honour the characters as he imagined them but also in the subtler, more elusive, more "literary" matters of tone and pace. And the point is not that this faithfulness is good for its own sake. It's that without it Brooklyn would probably not be much of a movie.

The thing about Brooklyn the novel is that it could so easily make a terrible film. Move in and strip it down to the situation and the narrative and what would you be left with? First, with a kind of double nostalgia: of place and of time, of the 1950s and of Ireland refracted through the Irish-American experience. And, second, with a love story that Mills & Boon wouldn't turn up its nose at. Eilis goes to Brooklyn and falls for Tony. She comes back to Enniscorthy and falls for Jim. Which hunk will she choose? It's easy to imagine even a very good American director – Mike Nichols was originally pencilled in – going for these elements and producing a very classy piece of crap.


But actually the book isn't about either of these things. There's no nostalgia in its view of Enniscorthy. Among its many virtues Brooklyn is one of the best Irish novels about social class, etching with extraordinary sharpness the gradations of deference and presumption in a small town. And it's not really a love story, either – certainly not a romance of a girl's choice between lovers. If anything it's an anti-romance: love is not some kind of magical, one-off connection but a matter of place and circumstance and opportunity. The real story is much closer to science fiction than it is to Mills & Boon: it's about a young woman who exists simultaneously in parallel universes.

It's the quality of the novel that gives Crowley the courage not just to make a beautiful and complex film but also to avoid the movie that offers itself so easily. The unmade movie would go for obvious dramatic elements. It would shape the story around "choice". And it would have conflict: somebody would have to be nasty. But Crowley knows that there's something much more interesting than a simple choice at play here. And he honours the book's refusal to have bad guys: even the priest is just straightforwardly decent. By holding his nerve on this he allows for wonderful performances in the roles that would be most easily caricatured: Julie Walters's Mrs Kehoe is as hilarious as she is horrible, and Jane Brennan as Eilis's mother is heartbreaking where she might so easily have been just another manipulative Irish mammy.

Most of all it is this keeping faith with the tone and texture of the book that enables the stellar Saoirse Ronan to be so utterly assured as Eilis. If you took her on plot alone Eilis could easily be stupid if she didn't know what she was doing to Jim, or cruel if she did. And were she either of those things for a single moment the film would collapse.

What Ronan is able to do so mesmerisingly is to embody the kind of Eilis that readers imagine for themselves. She makes Eilis so utterly alive to every moment, so sensitive to every place and person she encounters, that we understand completely how she gets caught up in those moments. She is practising the supreme Irish skill of adaptation – and learning as she does so that adaptation is also a relentless journey through loss. She controls tone and mood and pace and emotional colour in the way a novelist does, and in the process she reminds us that there is still an extraordinary life in the literary.