Books Into Film with Liz Jensen, Anthony Minghella and Nigel Williams

“Why do so many good books make bad movies?, asked Nigel Williams.

This was just one of the many million dollar questions discussed by Books Into Film’s distinguished panel, comprising Liz Jensen, Anthony Minghella and Nigel Williams and chaired by Deborah Moggach.

The evening began with Deborah Moggach highlighting the ruthlessness needed when dismantling the novel before turning it into a screenplay. Essentially, she pointed out, you are taking something very private and turning it into something very public. She cited two examples from her own experience, namely The Go-Between (screenplay by Harold Pinter) and Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson). With a project like Sense and Sensibility, it is difficult enough to turn the book into a film but then the film must relate back to the book in order to retain its authenticity.


Nigel Williams, author of 11 novels, Bafta and Emmy award winner, then went on to give a fascinating explanation as to why good books often make bad films (see link below). Common sense dictates that good books should make good films but this is not usually the case – what determines a good film is the story. The story should have the power to MOVE the audience in some way. He highlighted Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks as a good example. The audience involvement was high

because of the human element reflected in the hero/anti-hero…. Narrative devices are also very important to a good film, and the trick is to strike a balance to ensure success. You must use a form unique to film but don’t ignore the fundamentals of the story. Kind Hearts and Coronets got it right, the voiceover was the main narrative function and was a story in itself.Liz Jensen, Anthony minghella, Deborah Moggach and Nigel Williams


After a short reading from her latest book The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, Liz Jensen, author of five novels, described the character of Louis and his story told through his voice. Whilst Louis is French, Jensen has used English colloquialisms in his speech as it made him more real to her while she was writing. I realised afterwards how true to life Louis’ story was. It tells my mother’s biography and the tragedy of my uncle and grandmother. My uncle disappeared one day after a huge fight and never returned. My grandmother went looking for him one evening and was found dead at the bottom of a cliff the next day. 


The book is Louis’ exploration of circumstances surrounding his accident and feelings of revenge. After Louis tells his story, his doctor then narrates. He is fascinated by Louis’ story, it challenges things he had previously felt about coma patients and he begins to develop an infatuation with Louis’ mother.


So why was this book chosen as the basis for a screenplay? Anthony Minghella (Academy Award winner – Best Director, The English Patient), explained that the fact that the protagonist was in a coma was what first attracted his attention and made him want to turn it into a film. The screen story must have a question that needs to be answered, for example with The English Patient. The central mechamism is vital to making an effective movie from a book. Notice that when Liz read her extract she missed parts out, this is important to film-making too. Bits are missed out to make sense in real time, to communicate the story and create a sense of dynamic….film relies on aims to tell stories clearly.


When asked whether this simplistic attitude to narrative was unrealistic or not, he replied that if the story is contemporary and has less characters the movie will be relatively inexpensive. There is a direct correlation between the level of ambition and the success of a movie – therefore, the good films are the smaller ones. In Louis Drax there is one real world and one imaginary one which also makes it attractive to the film-maker… Film has no illusive qualities so the imaginary world is a challenge to recreate…How will Louis’ coma world look and collide with the real one? In a project like this, the opportunity to fail is greater.


Moggach then posed the question of whether there are ever moments in books that film-makers know will be remembered. Both Williams and Minghella agreed that it depended on the context. There are many ways to say ‘I love you’ in a movie, said Minghella. But when you are reading a book those three words look the same in writing. Williams added to the point stating that all language is in a context, it’s how you focus in on things that really move you that matters.

How film-makers felt about giving their actors the freedom to act as they wished was then asked; Minghella replied that it was always a bit bizarre to be faced with somebody that one has essentially ‘created’. There will always be arguments – that is to be expected. The nature of adaption is argument…you must remember that the result is not yours, only the process. The film has to be more than the sum of your own skills.

From the author’s point of view, Jensen said she is fascinated to see what will be different about the story. I was delighted by the recent play based on my novel War Crimes in the Home.…In his previous films Anthony captured the spirit of the prose which is remarkable. I would love to see what he does with Louis Drax.


Everybody at English PEN would like to express their sincere thanks to all the esteemed speakers and the staff of the Adam Street Club for this fabulous evening.

Click here for a transcript of Nigel Williams’ speech at Books Into Film

Report by Adimaya Keni.

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