John Banville: the movies and me

It took John Banville three years to write a book, and three days to turn it into his first film script. Money for jam, or beginner’s luck?

Gore Vidal was fond of remarking, in his elegantly waspish way, that Hollywood never destroyed anyone who was worth saving. This seems a somewhat cavalier judgement – what about the divine Marilyn, for example? – but one sees what he meant. It is hard to take seriously the anguished complaints of the likes of F Scott FitzGerald and William Faulkner about the way they were treated by the movies. Like so many intellectuals and artists, or would-be intellectuals and would-be artists, they thought they could drop out to the coast, dash off a few scripts, take the money and run. That is not how it works.

I suspect I shared something of that deluded notion when I began writing for the screen, in the early 1980s. Channel 4 was about to start up in the UK, and agents for the station were roaming the land in search of new material. I remember a Marc Boxer cartoon in one of the weeklies, in which a couple of cocktail-partygoers are chatting and one says to the other, “Do you know, I met someone last week who wasn’t doing something for Channel 4?” Happy days.

My big break came – you see how easily one falls into the lingo – when Neil Jordan introduced me to a friend of his, the producer Walter Donahue, who at the time was working for the nascent Channel 4. Donahue asked, in his characteristically diffident way, if I might have an idea for a film. I mentioned that I had just finished a novella, The Newton Letter, which I thought could be turned into a script. He read the manuscript and agreed. It took me nearly three years to write the book, and three days to write the script. Money for jam, I thought.

The film, called Reflections, got made with hardly a hitch. Had I but known it, this was a singular example of beginner's luck. It was directed by Kevin Billington, and had a wonderful cast including Gabriel Byrne, Harriet Walter and Donal McCann. It was a good film, even if it did not set the world alight. It had a cinema release, but Channel 4 did it no favours by broadcasting it in high summer, while the Olympics were on. Still, the audience for it that night was the size of three sold-out football stadiums.


Later, Billington and I tried to make another film together, based on my novel Kepler. He planned to cast Ben Kingsley as the astronomer Johannes Kepler, a marvellous choice, and the superb Austrian actor Oskar Werner, from Jules et Jim, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Fahrenheit 451, as Kepler's patron and scientific rival Tycho Brahe. Alas, we got nowhere with the project, and Kepler remains, for me, among the great unmade movies. In saying this, of course, I am fully aware that the unmade ones, including my biopic of Roger Casement, are always the great ones.

Crime novels
While I am on the subject, I must note that my crime novels, written under the name Benjamin Black, sprang out of a screen commission. RTÉ and ABC television in Australia had asked me to write a miniseries to be set between the two countries. The script I wrote in collaboration with Roy Heayberd, who was working at the time for Tyrone Productions, the film wing of the Riverdance company, would have made three one-hour episodes, telling a dark story of political and religious chicanery in the 1950s.

After a long delay it became clear that the series would not be made, and when my agent, Ed Victor, suggested one day that I might consider doing a crime novel, I hit on the idea of turning the script into a book. Thus Christine Falls was born. The irony is that three of the Benjamin Black novels have now been filmed by the BBC, with Gabriel Byrne playing the part of my protagonist, Quirke. The first episode is Christine Falls. I have not seen it yet, but I have high hopes.

The meandering history of the Quirke series is nothing compared to the evolution of Albert Nobbs. I was first approached in the 1990s by Glenn Close, who already had a script, by the Hungarian writer Gabriella Prekop, based on the story by George Moore. The script needed to be given an Irish accent, and the director Stephen Frears had suggested to Close that I was the one she should ask to do the job. She had played Albert on the stage in the 1980s to high acclaim, and since then she had been working to get the project on to the screen. She and I, along with a producer and director, spent a weekend in Paris hammering away at the script, and in the following months Close and I did a radical rewriting of it.

Unyielding determination
Most of the finance was in place, we had the beginnings of a cast, and all seemed ready to go. Then the last of the backers pulled out, and the project stalled. I assumed that was the end of poor Albert – films that, at the last minute, fail to get made develop a strong smell of must – but I had not reckoned with Close's relentlessness and unyielding determination. She kept on, and kept on, until at last, one day, she called to tell me that she had found new backers, and a new director and cast, and that filming would begin in Dublin shortly. In the end, Albert Nobbs received three Oscar nominations. Glenn, I take this opportunity once again to take off my hat to you and make a low bow.

This is the most admirable trait of so many movie people: they refuse to give up. When in early 2006 Luc Roeg of Independent films commissioned me to write a script based on my novel The Sea, we both fully expected it to be showing in cinemas within a year or two. In the event, it took more than six years before Roeg got the money in place so that the director, Stephen Brown, could start filming late last summer in Co Wexford. The Sea will be released in the autumn. The cast includes Ciarán Hinds, Sinéad Cusack, Natascha McElhone, Rufus Sewell and Charlotte Rampling, along with three brilliant child actors, Matthew Dillon, Missy Keating and Padhraig Parkinson. Once again I scrape my hat upon the floor.

The writing life is a solitary one. We sit in our studies for years on end, flogging away at a novel that as it goes along comes to resemble more and more a dead horse, and, when finished, seems to give off not the breath of life but the whiff of decomposition. Imagine, then, what a thrill it is to see the characters one spent so long trying to bring to some kind of life made suddenly and gloriously animate on the screen.

Film scripts, even the best of them, are dull things. They have to be: it is for the directors, cast and crew to give them substance. People ask me repeatedly if I am not horrified at times to see what has been made of this or that script of mine. I answer that, on the contrary, as I am incurably screen-struck, I watch “my” films in a state of befuddled enchantment, filled with wonder at the spectacle of “my” creatures walking and talking in the screen’s vast and shimmering light.

Cinema is the poetry of the people. Whether it is a silver-and-soot B movie of the 1940s or the latest Michael Haneke enigma, a film is a kind of miracle, of the kind that John Boorman characterises beautifully in the title of his movie memoir: money into light. Part of the miracle is the inclusivity of movies. Not everyone can read Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but there is no one who cannot watch, and understand, and thrill to, Dangerous Liaisons.

After I was awarded the Man Booker Prize, in 2005, for The Sea, I said how nice it was that this year a work of art had won the prize. That remark has haunted me ever since, but all the same I stick by it. What particularly pleases me about Stephen Brown's film version of the book is that it, too, is a work of art. It is also an intricate and beautifully crafted piece of cinema. I can say this without immodesty. At the start of a film project the script is the most vital component, but then the director, the actors, the cinematographer and the editor work their magic on it and bring about a transfiguration. In that process the word is made not flesh, perhaps, but something that looks remarkably like it. Words into light, then.

John Banville will be in conversation with Olivia O'Leary about Holy Orders, his new Benjamin Black book, the forthcoming TV series and the film of The Sea next Wednesday at 6pm at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, followed by a book signing and wine reception. Tickets €5 from the Gutter Bookshop (01-6799216) and Smock Alley Theatre (01-6770014)