When director Sam Mendes first approached Ian McEwan with the idea of turning his 2007 Booker-nominated novella On Chesil Beach into a movie, the author had just one stipulation.
“Whenever my books are turned into films,” he explains, as we sit in a chilly conference room, “I’m always asked to do the adaptation. Sometimes I’ve said yes, sometimes no, depending on what else I’m doing. In this case I was absolutely determined to do it myself. I didn’t want anyone else to mess it up.”
A poignant, minor-key romantic tragedy concerning the disastrous honeymoon night of a young mismatched couple in a small Dorset hotel in the summer of 1962, On Chesil Beach is, as the 69-year-old McEwan describes it, “a tender intimate story”.
Yet it’s one centred on a scene of marital breakdown that, without giving too much away in a family publication, might best be described as defiantly unfilmable.
“I saw a thousand ways of getting it wrong,” says McEwan of the scene in question. “Making it too sentimental, making it pornographic, exploitative, comic in the wrong places. I just knew I had to adapt it myself.”
Thanks to a little thing called “the James Bond franchise”, Mendes reluctantly relinquished the project, leaving the film in turnaround for a number of years before British theatre director Dominic Cooke stepped in.
The sprightly McEwan is snuggled in a comfy tweed jacket in a hotel near his Cotswolds home, chatting to me over an inappropriate buffet of pale chips and cheese sandwiches (“I’m on a low-carb diet,” he laments) about his love for Cooke’s finished film, and, in particular, the stunning performances of Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as doomed couple Florence and Edward.
“The project drifted away for a couple of years,” says McEwan. “But good fortune came out of that. Saoirse is extraordinary. I’d always wanted her to play Florence, but when the project began she was too young. Also, I could never picture the right actor to capture Edward’s mix of country bumpkin, toughness and vulnerability. Dominic suggested Billy and I’m so pleased with how it’s turned out.”
Ironically, given how protective McEwan is of his novel, the film (in cinemas from Friday 18 May) now includes new scenes that develop the story beyond one night. “I have no difficulty with making changes that are cinematically interesting,” says McEwan. “You can’t be too precious about these things.”
Since writing his first screenplay, The Ploughman’s Lunch, in the early 1980s, McEwan has seen five of his novels and three short stories transformed into films. Whether it’s been Harold Pinter’s chilling script for 1990’s The Comfort of Strangers, or Christopher Hampton’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for Atonement, the best McEwan adaptations have tended to be by writers or directors from the world of theatre.
The tradition continues with On Chesil Beach and, this coming August, with Richard Eyre’s film of McEwan’s 2014 novel The Children Act. “The advantage of working with theatre people is they treat the screenplay like the text of the play,” explains McEwan. “Therefore, it becomes much more of a collaboration with the writer.”
McEwan’s fondness for collaboration might also stem from his experiences with more assertive movie personalities. He describes his time working on John Schlesinger’s 1993 adaptation of his 1990 spy novel The Innocent as “being stuck for weeks on end in Berlin while things kept going wrong”.
He was also sacked from working on the 1993 film The Good Son when it was rebadged as a Macaulay Culkin vehicle, and worked solidly for two years with director Bernardo Bertolucci on an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel 1934 that was never finished.
“One day, Bernardo would decide the movie was a comedy, and I’d write it as comedy,” says McEwan, wearily. “Then he’d say ‘It’s a tragedy!’ and I’d write it as tragedy. I was just there to organise his thoughts.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, such unhappy experiences, McEwan has always fancied setting a novel within the Machiavellian film world, which he describes as “a fantastic concentration of love, irritation, pressure and controlled panic”.
But it won’t be for a while yet. His two most recent works promise to be even more visually challenging than “that scene” in On Chesil Beach: his 2016 novella Nutshell is a retelling of Hamlet, as narrated by an unborn child; and his next novel is “a kind of science-fiction novel set in the past that will be impossible to film”.
Also, he stresses, “there is a pain attached to movie projects. You get a fantastic team together. Everybody works incredibly hard. It’s on at the cinema for ten days, then it’s gone and no one sees any money.
“Plus, films are very time-consuming. Two years is the same time you’d spend on a novel. So it’s a choice: how much time have I got left, and what do I want to do with it?”
With that in mind, I ask why involve himself with films at all. “It’s a good question,” he says. “For one, it’s a fantastic counterweight to sitting alone writing. Also, novelists have never been able to recapture that centrality in the culture that Dickens and George Eliot had. Cinema still has that. When the movie of Atonement came out in 2007, the number of people who never would have heard of me, but bought my novel and wrote to me about it, was incredible.” He toys with a limp chip.
“It’s that dream we all have,” he says, “of making a beautiful, perfect movie that will be watched by a mass audience.”