Wilbur Smith: I saw all the movies of my books but I didn’t like them

"My characters are like my children," says the bestselling author, "no-one can put on the screen what I imagined in my head"

Wilbur Smith has written 34 books which have been translated into 26 languages and sold an astonishing 122 million copies worldwide – a body of work that has spawned a string of high profile movies over the years. 

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But speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival earlier today, the 80-year-old author admitted he didn’t enjoy watching the films made from his novels. 

“I didn’t like the movies, particularly,” he revealed. “I liked some of the characters in the movies but not what I imagined, not what I saw when I was writing.

“The characters in my books were people that I lived with over a long period of time and developed them and their families so I don’t think that anyone else on a screen or attempting to draw them, for instance, will get it exactly to what I saw and what I feel about it. They are like my children and all of us in our own children can see things that other people can’t – believe they’re better or worse than other people think they are – so that’s the same with my characters. No-one can put on the screen what I imagined in my head.

“It’s really very difficult to take a book, a work of fiction, and transpose it onto television or a large screen and that’s what makes it so interesting and that’s what is half of the challenge of writing or making movies or doing any other imaginative or artistic thing. That special personal view of everyone who looks at it, everyone who reads it.

Smith revealed he “saw them all” and that he thought Lee Marvin and Roger Moore were great but “I like them more for just what they are rather than what they did in my story.” 

The writer went on to recall his sole disastrous attempt to help with the process of adapting his stories for the silver screen. “I was involved once and that was my lesson in being involved in making movies. I sold the film rights and then the producer said to me would I write the script. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll write,’ and so I wrote it – you can imagine the masterpiece of the script.

“Then we had a thing called a script conference which was new to me and we all sat at a table, the producer sat down and said, ‘Gentlemen, we’ve got work to do to try and make some sense out of this load of codswallop. That was the end of my relationship with the movie business.”

Smith also talked about the selling of film rights to various parties, many of whom never went on to make the movie in question. “If they came back I sold them a second time – one book I’ve sold five times. That is the perfect arrangement. You get the money and they don’t make a mess of the movie.”

The author then moved on to express his views on the “demise of the public library” which offered those without large disposable incomes the opportunity to borrow and read books for free.

“I wish that everyone who would like to read one of our books has an opportunity,” he said in response to a question from the audience. “Nowadays it’s all a game – money and finances and big companies taking over.

Smith – who last December moved to HarperCollins in a multi-million deal – concluded by stating his opinion of the current publishing climate. “When I first started writing there were so many publishing companies – each one specialising in a different thing – but slowly they’ve been amalgamated, taken over, into very large publishing houses so they have their reasons and the reasons are financial.

“They are businessmen and they’re going to do the way they think they can perpetuate their business. But it is sad that people who cannot afford it just are left out in the cold. It’s the new world, I’m afraid.”  


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