Recently, Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn proved she was among the rare breed of authors who can successfully adapt their own books into hit films. Nick Hornby may belong to an even more exclusive species, however, as an author who also writes acclaimed adaptations of other authors’ work.
The first screenplay Hornby ever wrote was an adaptation of his first book, the football-obsession memoir, Fever Pitch. (It would later be re-adapted in the U.S. as a Jimmy Fallon vehicle, as was the style at the time.) A full 12 years passed before another of the British author’s screenplays was produced, and in that time he’d gone from a scrappy upstart to a seasoned literary vet whose novels had all either become films or were in development. None of those other adaptations had his fingerprints on them, though. By then, the author had turned his cinematic gaze outward to tell others’ stories, including the Academy Award-nominated An Education, and now, a new critically acclaimed film, Wild.
It wasn’t for lack of opportunity that the author of High Fidelity and About a Boy forsook overseeing his own books’ transition. Instead, he opted out.
“These were stories and characters I’d just put so much into and I didn’t want to go back to them,” Hornby says. “I didn’t want to spend three years taking out stuff that I’d just spent two years putting in. So I think while I have an idea in my head, I’d rather do something new than go over the old stuff.”
Most of the time, something new turned out to be novels such as A Long Way Down and Juliet, Naked. In between writing these, however he’d started and abandoned an original high concept screenplay with Emma Thompson and adapted another book whose screenplay was never produced. Hornby became frustrated with the long gestation period for making movies.
“The one thing I didn’t understand back then was that just because something is not really working out doesn’t mean it’s over,” he says. “Five or six years is the norm, but at the time I thought ‘Well, I’d really rather write a book that comes out rather than work on a movie that doesn’t.’ And there is still a part of me that feels that way.”
Another person struggling with the pace of adaptations was Hornby’s wife, Amanda Posey. As an independent film producer, she’d been having a difficult time getting rights to the books she wished to adapt. Every major literary work seemed to attract enough offers to lock her out of bidding. Hornby eventually suggested taking a different tack. He brought to Posey’s attention an essay he’d read in Granta by Lynn Barber. It was a memoir about Barber’s youthful fling with an older businessman, and the relationship’s fallout. Hornby sensed An Education was every bit as much movie material as the high-profile titles Posey was missing out on, but that few others might think to option it. Posey read and also loved the piece, and the resulting film earned both her and Hornby Academy Award nominations.
“An Education proved that over the course of many drafts, the right thing will get made,” Hornby says. Indeed, he’s met with far less resistance on his subsequent projects, literary adaptations with much higher profiles than the previous effort.
First up was Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted historical novel. That film, with Posey again producing, has had an extensive development process—the kind Hornby is finally used to—and is set to come out in 2015. In the meantime, however, the author also adapted the screenplay for Cheryl Strayed’s much-adored, introspective hiking memoir, Wild, which has just been released.
Hornby was initially attracted to Wild by the New York Times’ rave review. The moment he finished reading, the author had his agent track down the owner of the book’s rights so he could plead his case for adapting the screenplay. It turned out the rights belonged to Reese Witherspoon, who intended to star in it, and her producing partner, Bruna Papandrea. Hornby soon convinced the two to give him a shot.
The book presented a colossal challenge, however, for any screenwriter looking to draw out its dynamic action: the protagonist spends a significant amount of the book hiking by herself. Although there are plenty of pre-hike flashbacks, and Witherspoon’s character encounters several other travelers along the Pacific Crest Trail, much of the tension occurs in her own mind.
“I went into this with an idea of what I wanted the structure to be, and that was what I pitched to Reese and Bruna originally,” Hornby says. “My two main ideas were to reorganize it a bit structurally, and also to use a different kind of voiceover that externalized the inside of Cheryl’s head.”
Hornby went through the book with a highlighter and began writing out scene ideas on cards that he then stuck to a wall. As a screenwriter, what first leapt out at him were all the scenes where Cheryl interacts with others; but he knew the movie had to retain what he and so many others had loved about the book: the interiority of a woman on her own. Something was going to have to give.
“When I had done all the highlighting, I realized there was a pretty good two-hour movie that wouldn’t involve hiking at all,” Hornby says. “It was drug abuse and divorce and so on and so I thought, ‘Well, half of that’s gotta go because the other half’s gotta be the hike.’ So it was really a process of breaking everything down and boiling it down in order to find the room to do all the things that we needed to do.”
Aside from the structural decisions, Hornby wanted to make sure the film got the voiceover just right. Fans of his novel, High Fidelity, about a romantically challenged music snob, would not be surprised that the line in Wild that the author seized on was Strayed’s description of her inner monologue as “the mixtape radio of her head.” Hornby wanted to literalize this concept as much as possible. In the original screenplay draft, wherever normally it would have said ‘voiceover,’ it said ‘mix tape radio’ so he could drive home the point that this shouldn’t be the standard, tranquilly recollected voiceover. It was to be something much more urgent and insistent. Director Jean-Marc Vallée took notice of Hornby’s wishes.
“The way they’ve worked out the voiceover is that it’s not the same sound as the atmospheric sounds of the trail, nor is it that sort of clarity that you get from a recorded voiceover in the studio,” Hornby says. “It’s something in between and I think they’ve done a really good job of that.”
Now that Hornby has adapted to the glacial pace of filmmaking, he’s even begun using it to his advantage. The long-lead development time on movies has given him space to continue writing novels like Funny Girl, which comes out in the U.S. in February, even while juggling multiple film projects. What once seemed like a dealbreaking burden has turned into a boon for the prolific author’s productivity.
“I can take eight weeks out of writing a novel and get a screenplay draft done and you send it off and then it disappears at least for a couple of weeks, in which time you can get on with quite a lot of novel,” the author says. “The more you work on a screenplay, the shorter the periods of work that you’re being asked to do as well. So with Brooklyn, it was two drafts that broke the back of it and then every draft after that it took shorter and shorter periods of time until maybe sometimes you’re taking half an hour out of your day to rewrite a little scene. And it kind of works out with the rhythm of novel writing and it also works with the rhythm of filmmaking.”