As writer-director Michael Hoffman points out, oftentimes “second-rate books make better movies than first-rate books.” How, then, did Hoffman manage to make his first-rate film from the first-rate novel, The Last Station by Jay Parini? It’s the story of Leo Tolstoy (Oscar®-nominated Christopher Plummer) trying to find some peace at the end of his life in his often-rocky marriage to Sofya (Oscar®-nominated Helen Mirren), as perceived by Tolstoy’s disciple, Valentin (James McAvoy). It wasn’t always easy, but Hoffman explains to Script his adaptation process of the novel, navigating between drama and humor, and even drawing influence from unexpected sources.
Could you describe your adaptation process of the screenplay from Jay Parini’s novel? In particular, some expository writing you dramatized either visually or verbally.
Hoffman: Every novel brings with it its own set of specific issues—in a way, reducing it. It’s been said that second-rate books make better movies than first-rate books. One of the problems of The Last Station is that it’s a first-rate book in that its effects that it achieves are achieved through devices that are fundamentally literary or poetic. [As a screenwriter,] you’ve got to figure out how to incorporate that into cinema. One of the big issues of this film was point-of-view because Parini’s novel is narrated from six different points of view—each chapter is told from [a different character's] point-of-view. You never really get Tolstoy’s point-of-view; you just get Tolstoy through chunks of his writing (diaries, letters, his later pamphlet-writing), so you have to make some kind of decision [in writing the script] as to whose point-of-view [the film] is going to be in.
So that was the first initial problem and I found a solution in hanging it on Valentin’s point-of-view, letting him be the point of entry for the audience. In some ways, maybe it was an obvious choice, but it was an effective one and the reasoning was that here is the person who needs to know the same information that the audience needs to know to understand the story. I think some people come out of the movie thinking they’ve watched the story of this tempestuous marriage between these two titanic personalities; but really, structurally, it’s the sentimental education of the young secretary, Valentin. When I started going down that road, there wasn’t the information in the book to support that in a thoroughgoing way, so I had to start creating and also finding when I could diverge and when I could create another window in—through Sofya, because there was some material I knew I wanted to deal with, some scenes I knew Valentin couldn’t be in, that you didn’t want him in. I actually worried quite a bit whether or not it was going to be awkward to get so invested in him, and then move over into Sofya’s point of view. I think it was okay, that it worked okay.
I noticed you softened Valentin quite a bit from the novel—made him a bit less cold. Also, you’ve given Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the self-appointed protector of Tolstoy’s literary estate, a sense of humor. Why did you make those choices?
Hoffman: I don’t think I was conscious of making Valentin softer—I think maybe it was how I read him. I mean in the movie he’s a little more naïve, but there are still these moments of hiding behind his intellectualism—is that what you’re talking about? The way he talks about ideas and sort of hides behind them, in the novel?
And he does so with that arrogant virgin deal.
Hoffman: Maybe I didn’t read him as being arrogant and maybe partly because I read his diary as well. He has a very, very sweet voice in the diary: I heard him as being informed by his actual voice as it’s presented in the diary. And that was something that was going on in the process of developing all the characters. The novel was constantly bumping up against the source material and also the family, the stories that the Tolstoy family told me about the various characters—not much Valentin, but certainly Chertkov and Sofya. But what you’ve got to get is a sense of humor.
One of the breakthrough moments in the process came after I had written a draft of the script: I read it back and I thought, “This… really… sucks… It’s lifeless, it’s bad, I wouldn’t want to see this,” and I put it on the shelf and I thought, “Christ, I’ve spent a year of my life”—I mean, I did some other things in between, I was writing some other things and I made a little movie—but I spent a lot of time on the script and I was really disappointed in what I’d done. So I put it aside and picked it up maybe three months later, but before I started writing again, I went back and I read Three Sisters, Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and The Seagull—those four major plays of Chekhov. And then I started writing again, and it really helped me find that tragicomic tone. I mean, I kept saying to myself I wanted to make a tragicomedy about marriage but somehow I wasn’t finding a way to make that work. Reading Chekhov and dealing with the problems of the absurd and the sublime, living in very close quarters, the tragic and the comic, thrust up against each other constantly: it really helped me figure out what I wanted to do.
That brings me to my next question about playing the line between the drama and the humor in a given scene. What I thought was the best scene in a film of many fantastic scenes was the Little Chicken Scene…
Hoffman: That scene came very, very late. It’s not in the novel at all. I wrote that sort of out of desperation. I knew I had to somehow create some moment that let people know that [Tolstoy and Sofya] had a deep connection, almost a secret language. So I started just sort of sketching on the scene—I would write a line or two—there were references in the diaries of Tolstoy calling Sofya his “Little Chicken” and his “Little Bird,” so I just sort of started letting that roll around in my head and just sketching on the scene and I did it for two or three days. I really was not very confident about it. And then I showed it to a couple people, and they said, “This could be really interesting… if the actors will commit to it.” That was always the test for that particular scene. The producers were a little worried that it was never going to work, but, being an actor myself, I knew that if the commitment was there, then it wasn’t going to be embarrassing. If the actors hang back from a scene like that at all, it’s a disaster. But, [Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer] didn’t, as you can see. They embraced it whole-heartedly and… full-bloodedly. They’re both wonderful in it. There’s a lot of joy in the scene.
That’s the scene that sells their marriage for me—why they lasted for 48 years.
Hoffman: It’s funny, you know, it’s the scene that the Tolstoy family, when they read the script, they were really freaked out about it. They didn’t like it. Vladimir Tolstoy, head of the Tolstoy family, he was made very anxious about it, and not because Tolstoy’s a brand and they need to protect the brand, but it was just somehow he felt uncomfortable seeing his great-grandparents, who he’s spent his life hearing stories about and his whole life has been sort of formed by the fact he’s of their lineage: he was really uncomfortable with it. And then when he saw it [in the finished film]? He absolutely loved it. It’s not that we changed anything, we didn’t change a word in that we absolutely shot the scene as I wrote it, but somehow, because all the kind of extreme behavior becomes a text that gets so shot through with the subtext with love and confusion and seduction and joy, it just becomes human somehow.
What’s the secret, as a writer who happens to be a man, to writing a phenomenally three-dimensional female lead in Sofya?
Hoffman: This is what I was trying to do I think, in the movie, and I’m not sure I always realized it—I think I began to realize it later on—that I was working out issues in my own marriage. And I was working on that problem that… the toughest task we have to perform as human beings is to actually fully love another person and the reason is because it’s almost impossible for a human being to believe that someone else’s priorities are as important as one’s own. I was trying to work that out in my own marriage, and work out all the ways in which my wife’s frustration made me feel like a victim and kind of asserting myself made her angry and feel deprived, and all those issues of balance that every marriage has. I think that I was working that out, and I know it happened gradually, through the drafts: that Sofya became a more and more and more sympathetic character. I didn’t set myself the problem in sort of an abstract way, but I know that that was the work I was doing. I mined from my own marriage as opposed to Parini’s novel where Sofya says to Tolstoy, “You are the work of my life and I am the work of yours. That’s what love is.” I really believe that—I believe that in my own marriage, I believe that about relationships—they are that thing that creates us and destroys us and creates us and destroys us, and through that dialectical process, we become who we are, we grow into who we are.
That, in the end, was what I became really intrigued with in the story. When I first read the novel, I had no idea that that was what it was about, or what it could be about. It’s like what Virginia Woolf said: if a person read Hamlet every year of his or her life, and wrote down his notes, at the end of his life he would have written his autobiography. It’s really interesting the way that a text shifts and changes depending on what’s happening to you when you read it.