Nick Hornby is a culture hero. His 1990s novels High Fidelity and About a Boy were era-defining bestsellers that became cult-adored films. As the Brit has continued to write books and essays, in the last few years he has also become a sought-after screenwriter, adapting other people’s memoirs and novels into first-rate films. First there was An Education, which earned Hornby an Academy Award nomination; then Wild, based on the Cheryl Strayed bestseller, which also yielded acclaim; and now Brooklyn, opening November 4. It’s becoming more of a practice than a habit.
Brooklyn is based on Colm Toibin’s novel about a young woman in the early 1950’s, torn between her old life in Ireland and her new life in New York. It’s a beautifully crafted, old-fashioned story that is deeply emotional without being overly sentimental. Saoirse Ronan gives a spectacular performance which the Academy is unlikely to overlook, but perhaps the real star is the economy with which the story is fleshed out. Here, Hornby reflects on his comfort in adapting Toibin’s novel, the difficulty they had getting the movie made, and why adapting other people’s books into movies seems to be winning out over writing books of his own.
For Hornby, writing this script was surprisingly easy. “I read [the novel], I knew what I needed to do with it, and I did it,” he says. “I had a feeling for the material and it seemed like a quite straightforward job.” That’s not always the case. “Lots of times when I’m offered things, I can’t see how a story gets filmed. Either it’s too internal or it doesn’t have a strong spine. [But] this covers a short period—two years that are clearly the most crucial in a young woman’s life, where she will end changed by the experience. That felt uncomplicated.”
Most of the book is seen through Eilis’s (Ronan) eyes so he knew the movie had to be about her. And the book doesn’t have any subplots, really; it’s simply what happens to her in her life at that time. “It’s a quiet, literary novel but it’s not an internal, literary novel. I think that people confuse quietness with internality, but actually it’s her watching a lot of the time.”
His very first adaptation was a whole other ball of wax: the British version of Fever Pitch, which he adapted from his own memoir. His next one was An Education, and that was very different: “An Education was a complicated piece of work because it came from a tiny essay, so it took me a while to find the story I wanted to tell and the characters I wanted to tell it about. That really only emerged after four or five drafts. With Brooklyn, I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I just had a very strong sense that if I turned the volume up a little bit, it could be something really special.”
So the initial part of the process was uncomplicated, but that was four or so years ago. The rest? Well . . .
“Nobody could see how we could make anything that had any commercial appeal out of it,” Hornby says of attempts to finance his script. “And so you may or may not have noticed at the beginning of the movie that it’s funded by an enormous number of different people. That’s very painful to put together. It took a while to find the right people, the right director, the right star.”
Hornby knows more about that than the average screenwriter because his wife, Amanda Posey, is one of the film’s producers. “For a while, we prided ourselves on what a good partnership it was as writer and producer because you’re not naturally in each others’ pockets the whole the time. In fact, part of her job is coming home depressed because people are turning her script down. That’s a hard thing to tell your husband when he’s the author of the script.”
Once they found their lead actress, things started falling into place. And yet, if they had landed financing five years ago, when they started this process, Saoirse Ronan could not have been the film’s star. She was only 15 years old at the time. “Saoirse is phenomenal. I think she was maybe 18 or 19 when she first read the script, and she was completely unequivocal about it in a way that is so helpful when you’re making a movie. When it’s with the right person that person will not give it up for anything.” Says Hornby, “Sometimes when people are attached to a project they need persuading to stay attached and then, in retrospect, they’re not the right person. There was no way she wasn’t going to play this part. That gives everyone such a sense of purpose.”
“It would be self-deluding to think of myself as more of a novelist than a screenwriter at the moment,” says Hornby. “I would say more equally both. Since An Education, I’ve only managed one novel, in fact.” In addition to Brooklyn, he’s working on a TV series for the BBC and he’s in the middle of another movie script. “So there’s still work to come and I haven’t started another novel.”
All that has him shifting his sense of who he is as a writer. “One interesting thing I’m just kind of getting my head around is that most of this work is not self-generated. Once you’ve done a couple [adaptations] and they’ve worked out, people come to you. Then you find you have two or three things stacked up and that’s all taking up time and imaginative energy, whereas novels are entirely self-generated and you need to clear a space and say, I’m not going to do anything [else] for a year. I haven’t done that because I don’t want to miss out on what’s being offered. The time gets filled by other people coming to you and novels work at a disadvantage in that way: They’re in you and they’re fighting for your attention.”
At the moment, they’re losing that fight. “I’m coming up to my 25th anniversary of sitting on my own in a room, and I’m at a stage in my life where I want to minimize the time that happens, actually. I have to do it some—whatever writing I do is alone in my room. When something works out, as I think Brooklyn has, there are a lot of advantages. Now I’m promoting it and I feel part of a team. I can take real pride in a movie without necessarily taking pride in just my own work. That feels like a healthy thing. You’re always so conflicted about [bragging about] something you’ve done entirely yourself. I’m just blown away by Saoirse and by what [director] John Crowley has done. I can honestly say, regardless of whatever I did, this film has fantastic work in it and so I can be unabashedly proud. It’s very hard to talk about your own work in a way that’s neither self-deprecating to the point of insulting it or arrogant. It’s a complicated relationship you have with your novels.”