David Nicholls: I understand the Emma Morley casting controversy

The author of bestselling novel One Day talks about the film adaptation which stars American actress Anne Hathaway as the main character. Matilda Battersby reports

Having decided to forgive the movie adaptation of David Nicholls’ international bestseller One Day for the crime of giving away the entire plot in the trailer I went along to a preview screening of the movie which hits cinemas today. Like many fans of the book, I howled in horror when American actress Anne Hathaway was cast as witty Yorkshire lass Emma Morley. But, (again) prepared to forgive and forget the miscasting of a woman Jan Moir described in yesterday’s Daily Mail as “about as frumpy and ee-bah-gum as Beyonce”, in the role of the slightly chubby, dorky Emma, I went along.

The verdict? In an otherwise commendable performance Hathaway spoke in every possible English accent, veering from broad Northern to clipped RP and occasionally American. It doesn’t spoil the film, during which I opened my tissue packet twice, but this controversial piece of casting has overshadowed the film release of a book which has sold over a million copies in this country alone.

Meeting Nicholls, who also wrote the screenplay, I asked what he thought about the horrified way his readers (women in particular, I think) have reacted to the idea of Hathaway as Morley. “Well, I think it’s always hard, isn’t it?” he said. “On all the films I’ve worked on the actors cast do not necessarily look the same as the characters on the page. But I think that’s fine, it’s inevitable in adaptation. Anne actually brings out, and has herself, a lot of Emma’s qualities – the awkwardness, watchfulness and intelligence. So, I understand the controversy but I wish it hadn’t taken place before anyone has seen the film. Because that seems a prejudice.”

Problems with her English accent aside, Hathaway has a vulnerability and sassiness which works well. She is very funny after all. I went into the cinema appalled and determined to disapprove (yes, with that prejudice Nicholls speaks of) and left it less appalled but not entirely won over. I think it’s her doe eyed beauty which does it. Without meaning to (the poor girl can’t help being so pretty), Hathaway lends the movie a twinkle of Hollywood with every flash of her perfect white teeth. It is impossible to believe that she lives in a London bedsit, dates a no-hoper comedian called Ian (a brilliant turn by Rafe Spall) and spends two years of her life serving up refried slop in a Mexican restaurant.

In case you haven’t yet read the book (where have you been?), it is the story of the friendship between Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess) played out on the same day every year for two decades. Starting in 1988 when they end up in bed together after celebrating their graduation from Edinburgh University (see clip, above), the book narrates the twists and turns of a not always easy, or platonic, but deeply valuable and believable relationship as they grow from extreme youth toward middle age. Probably because of Nicholls’ hands-on approach, the film is as true to the book, in structure and script at least, as is possible.

“The first thing you lose when you put things onscreen is that inner monologue, the voice in a character’s head that explains why they’re doing what they’re doing and makes them likeable, or bearable, to a reader if they’re behaving badly – Emma and Dexter are not always at their best in the book. But onscreen you have to leave that to the actors. So that was the hardest loss,” Nicholls said.

He is keen to stress that the film is not a “Hollywood version” of the story. “No-one ever said to me ‘Does Dexter really need to be so obnoxious?’ or ‘Does this scene really have to be so dark?’ We weren’t encouraged to knock the corners off to make things softer or easier. It isn’t actually a big budget production and neither was it a case of Hollywood swooping in on a well-loved book, because we started making the film before the book was even published in most countries. We made it for a pretty low budget, pretty quickly because we wanted to stay true to the book.”

The “one day” the tale takes place on is St. Swithin’s Day, 15 July, related to some crooked tradition stating that if it rains on this day it will rain for forty days. “I chose St. Swithin’s Day because it had to be a date the characters could refer to if they needed to, but it had to be a normal day not Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve. It’s sort of our equivalent of Ground Hog Day. Of course it’s nonsense. It’s a very inept way of predicting the future and, of course, that’s what the book is all about.”

In the romantic comedy genre Morley is a refreshing change from the Hollywood stereotype of humourless woman who infantilises her lover/husband, is stressed out and bossy and obsessed with material things. The positivity and realism with which Nicholls drew Morley’s character is a massive part of her appeal, and her middling-to-good attractiveness depending on where we are in the story is a major part of this. She wins the hopeless, arrogant, womanising Dexter over and makes him into a decent human being through their friendship - not by batting her beautiful eyelashes.

“I didn’t want to write another goofy guy and wisecracking girl. Men and women in a lot of romantic comedy have been pushed into opposing camps. The women are ultra-feminine and obsessed with shopping; and the men are kind of slobby and only ever want to spend time with other men and talk about football. I didn’t recognise this in real life. Most of my best friends are female and they are interested in politics and not that bothered about shoes. I wanted to write someone who wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the conventional female characters.”

His success in doing so has placed the bar very high indeed for Hathaway.

One Day hits cinemas across the UK today

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