Death in Venice: the remix

Thomas Mann's gay 'Lolita' has been done to death. But one British director was determined to make a film of the novel inspired by the film of the original. And set it in Swiss Cottage. Roger Clarke went on location to find out why
Gilbert Adair is best known for his film column in the Sunday Times. A languid cinephile of tousled appearance and uncertain age, he is also the respected, rather cerebral author of such mimetic tomes as The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland sequels, and of course the elegantly slim novel Love and Death on Long Island - a reworking of Thomas Mann's 1912 classic, Death in Venice.

The gay Lolita, Death in Venice has endured many recastings - the most recent being Harold Brodkey's skittishly brilliant final novel Profane Friendship. Byron, Diaghilev, Baron Corvo and EM Forster all lived the Death in Venice myth before it was even written. Gay aesthetes have long thrilled to its louche mix of sacred and profane, beauty and decay. either experiencing it for themselves beneath the bells of St Mark's or swooning at every luxuriant sighting of Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice or Britten's last opera of the same name.

Now Adair's novel has been filmed and is currently in post-production in London. Between them, Adair and the movie's young British director, Richard Kwietniowski, have modernised the myth, stripping it of its beaux- arts gloss but not of its obsessive power in the thrall of anonymous beauty. It is now removed from Venice altogether. Edwardian tea-rooms full of aristocrats have been traded in for teen exploitation movies in Swiss Cottage. Mann's not altogether convincing meditations on platonic beauty have been traded in for pure and baffling lust towards a cinematic image. The cues are from Visconti rather than from Mann.

Except that, in Visconti's hands, Austrian writer Gustav von Aschenbach - hopelessly pursuing a Polish boy through turn-of-the-century Venice - became a composer (cue lashings of Mahlerian Adagietto on the soundtrack). Adair turned him back into a writer again - making him an old fogey novelist living in NW3 who becomes obsessed with the American teen star of a Porkies-style movie and goes to America to seek him out. Think of AN Wilson falling bananas in love with pouting Jason Priestley and you get the picture.

Kwietniowski has just finished shooting Love and Death on Long Island in Nova Scotia, after an 11th-hour injection of Lottery cash. But before leaving for Canada, the director shot a few scenes with John Hurt in London. And so, one cloudy morning in Westminster, both Adair and I found ourselves as extras in a lecture room.

Kwietniowski had seated an actor beside Adair in the rented audience just in front of me. Hurt, playing the lead (simply called Giles), was giving an insufferably pompous talk about cinema, and the extras all had to laugh at key moments. Adair, I noticed, seemed almost mesmerised by the ravaged face of the actor; a frisson of post-modernist pleasure was evidently coursing through the arch-post-modernist himself. There he was, watching his alter-ego; an apparition from his own book. Here he was in the film of the book of the film of the book; Kwietniowski's version of Adair's version of Visconti's version of Mann.

The actor in the audience was primed to ask Hurt a question; Kwietniowski was keen, I felt, to have Adair's crumpled bespectacled face in one of his shots. John Hurt peered over his half-moon spectacles at the imbecilic questioner and Adair trembled, almost cowered with fascinated disgust, at the side of the frame. Here he was at last on the other side of the silver screen - "the great fire in the grate of the cinema screen, around which millions have warmed ourselves", as he wrote in his recent Faber survey of Cinema history, Flickers.

It seems that Visconti's film is problematic to some gay people. In Flickers, Adair chastely neglects to mention his novel when discussing Visconti's Death in Venice, but at least he does devote space to the film (especially to Bjorn Andresen's alluring swimwear), which is more than can be said of Jenni Olson's The Ultimate Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Book (published shortly by Serpent's Tail). This omits the whole of Pasolini's oeuvre, as well as Visconti's Death in Venice, although it does include David Ebersole's utterly dull 30-minute homage to the Visconti classic, Death in Venice CA [California].

Richard Kwietniowski's story is an inspiring one. When I first knew him, he was living in a humble bedsit in Bristol, a wonderfully good-natured Morrissey lookalike, occasionally making ingenious arthouse films when given the money. One day he bought Adair's novel. He sent me a copy. It was, I soon discovered, a cult book about icons and obsessions loved by writers as diverse as Alan Hollinghurst and James Hamilton-Paterson. Somehow Kwietniowski managed to find pounds 5,000 to buy the film rights, with absolutely no prospect that anyone would fund a first feature conservatively priced at pounds 2m.

He wrote draft after draft, with Adair coming to script meetings in Fortnum and Mason's tearoom. Sometimes Kwietniowski would be so excited he would drive round to my house and deliver the latest version. I knew the story backwards, had even suggested a few touches here and there, yet when one of the professional extras disconcertingly hissed at me, "What's this film about then?", I found it strangely hard to answer.

Was it about Mann's platonism, Visconti's decadence, Adair's post-modernism or Kwietniowski's comedy? I had always suspected that Visconti's film might be a comedy after laughing all the way through it the last time I watched it, and Kwietniowski had wisely decided to tease this strand out of the old story. Or was it really the gay Lolita, the kind of film about gay men chasing young boys that embarrasses politically correct American gay film historians like Jenni Olson?

It turns out, according to Thomas Mann's biographer, Anthony Heilbut, that the original Tadzio lusted after by Mann at Les Salles des Bains in Venice was in fact 10 years old. (Adair interviewed the real Tadzio, now an old man, some years back for a Sunday newspaper supplement.) Pointedly, the boy gets older in every version. The Canadian backers got nervous about the boy looking under-age in Kwietniowski's film.

"I had suggested Eddie Furlong as a possible Ronnie," Adair says, "but Richard was keen on Jason Priestley." Furlong looked too young, so Priestley it was; with unsuspected reserves of irony, this sometime star of Beverley Hills 90210 agreed to play a washed-up teen star with pathetic pretensions to being a serious actor.

Later on, I discover that Adair had gone over to Nova Scotia to meet Priestley, without quite knowing who he was. He was charmed by the soigne young star, who was charming Kwietniowski even more by lending him his clothes.When Kwietniowski, Adair and Hurt were all having dinner, Kwietniowski said to Adair, "What's it like to be sitting with two Giles?" Adair thought carefully about this for a few moments. "But there are three Giles here," he whispered in hushed and appalled tones.

When the day's filming finally stopped in Westminster, I told Adair to make sure he got paid his pounds 40 fee as an extra. "Paid?" he exclaimed in slightly Lady Bracknellish tones, suspecting I might be teasing him, that I was suggesting something rather shocking like a visit to a masseur. Finally, he wandered off with an air of anticipation about him; to be paid to appear in a film of your own book, whose rights you had sold, watching your own alter-ego, was clearly something to be savoured. He had become an extra and learnt a trick: the post-modernist always gets paid twice.

n 'Love and Death on Long Island' will be released later this year