One of the fall’s most buzzed-about films is An Education, starring Carey Mulligan as Jenny, a 16-year-old Londoner who meets a cultured, impossibly charming, if older, man named David (Peter Sarsgaard) in 1962. Directed by Lone Scherfig, An Education marks internationally renowned novelist Nick Hornby’s first screenplay adapted from another writer’s work (a 10-page memoir by Lynn Barber). Recently, Hornby took time to speak with Script about his newest film, filmic adaptations of his novels (About a Boy, High Fidelity), and his philosophy of writing.
How is writing for the screen different than writing prose?
I’m not sure there’s an awful lot of difference in terms of the imaginative act. I guess the big difference is really in terms of time and space. A hundred pages of script seem to go by pretty fast: There’s not much writing on each page, and you can get to the end and realize that you kind of didn’t do anything that you intended to do. There are characters missing and scenes missing, and I don’t think that happens with a novel where you’ve got the time and the space to do what you want. So, it’s more undercoats and lots of different coats of paint rather than the one draft where you can more or less get to where you want to be. That’s certainly the novel process.
Could you describe your adaptation process for An Education?
The first time I saw [An Education], it was a 10-page piece of memoir in a literary magazine, Granta. For me, that looks like a pretty good way to go in terms of adaptation because there was a lot missing that I had to fill in. There were suggestions of scenes and characters and narrative, but I also had the room to make up my own stuff. It wasn’t a question of taking a 400-page book and leaving three-quarters of it out. I was given the very bare bones of something and allowed to flesh it out. That was a lot of fun.
With your works High Fidelity and About a Boy, you’ve popularized the idea of the “created family.” In An Education, Jenny meets and spends time with David and his posh friends, and they create a kind of family. How do you go about constructing such intimate, familial relationships with your characters?
I’m not sure, to be honest. I found those characters very interesting: They were people I hadn’t quite come across before, this sort of early-1960’s bohemian underworld person. I suppose the only thing you can do, really, is to imagine the characters as preexisting the best way you possibly can. And I knew what Jenny was going to get out of them, so it was very important to me that she felt a sense of belonging with those people pretty quickly, that she wanted to be part of that “family,” as it were, and hang out with those people, so, hopefully, the audience would, too.
In the film, Jenny mentions a line that her English teacher told her, that “action is character.” Does narrative produce character or do the characters produce the narrative?
I think narrative produces character. I believe that the moment you get characters doing stuff, whether it’s in fiction or in a screenplay, these are the things that build the character we’re seeing on the screen. I think you have to try to imagine them as fully as possible before you get to page one even, but the moment they start walking that narrative path, then those are the things that form them — in my mind and in the minds of an audience.
Two of your books have been Americanized for film adaptations. How do you feel about a radical shift in setting for your story and characters; how significant is setting in determining a story?
I think the longer I’ve gone on in my career, the more I’ve realized [that setting] is actually not that important for readership. [An English setting] was important for me in terms of just being able to see places [when I was writing the book], but when High Fidelity started being published in other countries — in the U.S. and in other European countries — nobody ever wanted a conversation about what that book said about England; they wanted a conversation about what it said about them, as readers. People came up saying, “My brother’s like that,” or “My boyfriend’s like that,” or “I’m like that,” but they didn’t ever say, “England’s like that.” And so, I started to realize that the location was much less important than I had believed. I think mostly I’m writing books about characters who live now in first-world cities. Of course, there’s detail in that because I know those locations very well, but I’m not sure how much they really matter.
Music plays a large role in the lives of your characters, Jenny included. What does music tell us about a character?
Well, I think, first of all, that music is a very good way of defining character. You can nuance a character pretty well through his or her cultural consumption. It’s one way we all use to judge people: whether they read books, what kind of books they read, what kind of music they listen to. In An Education, [Jenny’s cultural consumption] was important because that time, 1962, was probably the last time middle-class English kids looked across the English Channel for inspiration rather than the Atlantic. A couple of years later, all that changed with the Beatles, the Stones records, the American influences, but at that time, if you were a bright kid, then you were watching Godard and Truffaut films, listening to French music, reading French novels. That was something very particular to the time, so I wanted to use it.
How much research did you have to do to write 1962 London so convincingly? And yet, surprisingly, when watching the film, one keeps forgetting it’s 1962 because it feels so contemporary.
I think that was one of the things that attracted me to the story, that it felt quite contemporary as well as saying something about the time. Historically, it’s the arrogance of each generation that believes we’ve invented all this stuff. In fact, things have been happening this way for hundreds of years: We think we invented sex and music and drugs and drink, and of course people have been having relationships with these things for a very long time.
I was a small child at the beginning of the 60s, so partly I was thinking back to my parents, my grandparents, my extended family, how they spoke and how they thought, so I used some of that. I read a fair bit, but really I think the thing that’s got to convince you is what you see, and that’s really [Lone Scherfig, the director’s] job and the job of the production department. I think they did a beautiful job. Lone was so thorough and so excited by the possibility of those early 60s settings. I got very excited when she took over and I walked into her office and saw these millions of pictures that she’d found, of hair and shoes and furnishings and tea cups and everything. You realize then that actually the script can only go along some of the way toward recreating the world. I got very interested in the language and very paranoid about the language. Every time anyone talked about sex, for example — whether it’s “sleeping around” or “sleeping with” — I [had to investigate] whether these phrases were actually in existence then, but usually it turned out that Chaucer had invented most of it.
When watching the film, the real testament to the talent of the production design team and the director, all that effort that goes into creating the period becomes absolutely invisible in terms of the audience being in the story, but not jostled out of it.
That is where Lone has done a beautiful job. She was interested in getting the detail right, but she didn’t want to foreground any of it, she didn’t want to slap you on the head with the idea that this story is set in the past, that the cars may not look like cars now, and the telephones may not look like telephones now, and all that kind of thing, but the important thing is what’s happening between those people.
One of my favorite parts of experiencing An Education was that I got the feeling halfway through it, “Wow, this is Nick Hornby writing a villain with the character of David,” which you’ve not really done before.
I tend not to. I’m not sure David is as villainous as he could have been, either. One of the things where we had to be careful was that there are some senses in which the relationship is inappropriate. Even though Jenny is 16 — so it’s not like anything illegal is happening — she is vulnerable and she’s in a school uniform, so I wanted to make sure that we could stand to be with this guy. Usually he’d be a minor character rather than the lead in a movie. There are some senses in which she exploits him too; he is her access to a world that she wants to belong to, so she sees that for what it is. There’s a kind of gaucheness about him as well. There was one thing that interested me in the original piece: that scene where David thinks that the banana [might be of some use to assist Jenny in losing her virginity]. It struck me as such an awkward, clunky thing to do that it stopped David from being a suave villain.
That scene is so jarring in the film. I thought, “David, really? Really?” It was an absolute double-take moment that really humanized him, but also showed him to be this sort of creepy, just out-of-it guy …
Yes, absolutely. He has moments like that as well as moments of immense charm. Lone said it’s what attracted her first to the script was that she wanted to see that guy on film, which is interesting for me because I think Lone likes him. And of course, Peter Sarsgaard: he’s a proper actor who’s not afraid of trying to be somebody like that. I don’t think we would have gotten a conventional rom-com leading man to play that part because it damages the brand [laughs]. Peter just likes playing interesting people, so he was great for it. One of my most memorable script meetings [involved the banana scene], which was in every draft. At one meeting, a guy from BBC Films, who was enormously helpful in developing [the film], said, “This banana thing … would it work?” There was this awkward silence. He looked at the two producers, who both happened to be women, and everybody shifted very awkwardly in their seats, and there was a long silence. And then one of his assistants said, “I think it was an unpeeled banana.” And then he’s going, “Ah! I see, I see, unpeeled, it’s not right, I understand that.” It was excruciatingly embarrassing but very funny.
An Education does offer a different take on Lolita, doesn’t it? But David is a less pathetic Humbert Humbert. David seems very much in control as opposed to his Lolita being the one in control.
Yes, I think there’s more balance in this relationship. There are creepy bits, but these characters do forge a relationship of equals in the film. In a way you have to resist the temptation to write the “climactic scene,” because actually some climactic scenes are just people shouting stuff they already know at each other, you know what I mean?
How much does gender play a factor for you when you’re writing your characters? Do you think, “This is a man,” or “This is a woman.” Jenny does seem very feminine in a familiar way, but then we have Will in About a Boy and Rob in High Fidelity — are these feminine men?
Well, I think that the meaning of masculinity changes generation to generation. I’m not sure that they’re feminine men — they’re not Humphrey Bogart men, that’s for sure, but their lives are not distinguished nor defined by physical adventurousness or aggression. But this is true for the experiences of a lot of the men I know now. I still think they’re men. Of course, one of the things that mucks up Will [in About a Boy] is that Will has no real interest in getting involved in anyone’s emotional life, and that’s the journey of that particular film. [In High Fidelity,] Rob, with his geeky passions, seems more of a male thing than a female thing to me. So, yes, of course, I do think about gender carefully, and what perspective I want to tell a story from, while at the same time recognizing men and women are much closer in their experiences today than they’ve ever been before.
How is it that you’re a gentleman of your age writing a protagonist who is a 16-year-old girl in An Education?
I think if you’re a fiction writer and you’re writing about somebody who is not yourself then it’s always hard. I think the last time I wrote somebody who was like me was probably High Fidelity with Rob, and that was a few years ago now. If you’re writing about children now, women now, men now, who are not you, then that’s an act of the imagination. I was brought up in all-female household — my sister in lots of ways was not dissimilar from Jenny in the film in terms of sparky-ness and intellectual curiosity. You just hope that you’ve observed enough to be able to pull these things off. Of course it helps that both the producers and the director of this film are female; I had a safety net in that way. Also, there were girls who I knew when I was that age.
And there was me, too — one of the ways I connected to this material was that same feeling when I was a suburban kid, of wanting access to the city and wondering how I was going to get that access. I think one of the universal things of the story [An Education] is that, in a way, this is partly the story of popular culture since World War II, [the story of] a lot of suburban kids who feel like they’re missing out. It’s the story of so many rock-n-roll bands. I’m in Toronto at the moment, thinking of Robbie Robertson and the Band, his growing up in Canada, but wanting to be one of those people from the Southside of Chicago and trying to emulate that. It’s the Rolling Stones growing up in Dartford, a kind of sleepy English town 40 miles outside London, and wanting access to, first of all, the middle of London, and then, the middle of America. It’s that fear of being left out and the world passing you by. It’s Bruce Springsteen growing up in New Jersey and looking over the river at New York. It’s there in a lot of the things that I love. For me, it was soccer; I could travel to London and pay a small amount of money to stand in the middle of a soccer crowd and feel that I was part of the life of the city.
You know, Jenny wants that music and the restaurants and the art and she’s not going to get it the way her [sheltered, suburban] life is being lived at the moment.
What would be the most important piece of advice you could recommend for a writer to keep in mind, no matter what?
I think the thing I’ve learned with this movie is about assistance. I’m in a different situation because I have a day-job, which is writing books. Writing books is actually pretty uncomplicated compared to writing movies. Books are not a collaborative medium; if I write a book to the best of my ability, my publisher will publish it. But this movie was always really a bit of a long shot — the two leads could not be big stars, there wasn’t that much of that kind of box-office appeal for backers. I had to keep myself up draft after draft, thinking, “I don’t know if anybody’s going to make this, but I want to write it anyway.”
For me, I’ve never been more enthusiastic than I am now about the powers of collaboration, the things that a director and a cast bring to a screenplay. I know that’s a hard thing to say to a screenwriter whose work maybe hasn’t been produced yet, but [a screenwriter ought to] embrace what other people can bring to a script and not be protective of the script. It is, after all, only a blueprint for a movie, and one of the joys of the process is seeing what other people can bring to a script.