The ghost of Alan Clarke's Scum makes its presence felt in this lowering tale of a youth correctional facility in the American Midwest.
Never Let Me Go, the film which will be opening the London Film Festival, is the latest in a long and very variable line of movie adaptations of the work of the YBN's – the golden generation of young British novelists whose work was anthologised in Granta's 1983 list of British novelists to watch out for in the future.
Advance word on Never Let Me Go, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, is very positive. Mark Romanek's film, starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, is a dystopian fable about friends who grow up, in an English boarding school, with an ominous shadow hanging over their lives. Critics have already called it "a thing of rare beauty," and "British film at its best." That is very much more upbeat than the responses that have greeted most of the other adaptations of books by the YBNs, class of '83.
Over the last three decades, there have been several movies inspired by novels of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Ian McEwan and co. What is startling is how few of them have been any good and how random the process seems to be as to which books have been earmarked for movie adaptation. Some writers have had several movies culled from their fiction. Others have been spurned altogether. The most cinematic books have been ignored while film-makers have made quixotic attempts to bring the least obvious literary projects to screen.
Amis, in particular, has been very badly served by film-makers. The only two big screen adaptations of his work, Damian Harris's version of The Rachel Papers (1989) and William Marsh's version of Dead Babies (2000), were from his earliest novels. Both films were excoriated by critics.
The adaptation of The Rachel Papers, about a precocious young intellectual (Dexter Fletcher) trying to sleep with an older woman before he turns 20, was labelled smug, misogynist, and was compared unfavourably with John Hughes's teen movies in the US. Meanwhile, in response to Dead Babies, about a debauched weekend in a British country house, Variety argued that Amis simply didn't work on screen, and that his "unlikeable, self-obsessed dialogue and characters are best left on the printed page". This was an impression reinforced by the response to the recent BBC television version of Money, Amis's most celebrated novel. Reviewers queued up to tell their readers that it wasn't a patch on the book
Major film-makers are still drawn to Amis's work but struggle to get their movies made. The scripts are hard to lick into shape. The financiers take a lot of convincing. David Cronenberg, David Mackenzie and Michael Winterbottom have all been attached at various times to direct a version of Amis's London Fields. Nic Roeg has been plotting an adaptation of Amis's Night Train, about a hardbitten female US cop investigating the mysterious death of a beautiful young woman, for well over a decade. If these projects are ever completed, they may at least begin to challenge the received wisdom that Amis's fiction is unfilmable.
At least Amis's novels have made it to the cinemas. There have been no films at all of the work of Salman Rushdie, another very prominent name on the 1983 Granta list. Deepa Mehta is reportedly working on a film version of Midnight's Children (1981) (Rushdie was a fervent champion of Mehta's 2005 film, Water). In an article on film adaptations, written at the time of Slumdog Millionaire, Rushdie told a story about "a somewhat inebriated British film producer, who said, with a certain amount of fist-pounding on our hosts' dinner table, that all movies made from books are shit," a position for which he [Rushdie] agreed it was possible to make a strong argument.
A recurring problem is that film-makers take literary novels too seriously. They're so keen that their films should live up to their source that they risk losing their humour and spontaneity. There have been earnest and well-meaning adaptations of books by Graham Swift, and other prominent British novelists of his era, that have been respectful without being inspiring.
The YBN of 1983 whose work has been most frequently adapted for screen is Ian McEwan. It's a measure of McEwan's versatility that his novels have inspired such a wide range of movies: everything from glum, low-budget British psycho-dramas to glossy, studio-backed epics.
McEwan adaptations have changed over the years. The first film versions of his work tended to be morbid and unsettling movies. Andrew Birkin's The Cement Garden (1993) was an effectively claustrophobic drama about adolescent angst, death and incest. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for Paul Schrader's version of The Comfort of Strangers (1990), which was considerably enlivened by Christopher Walken in silky, diabolic mode as the American in Venice who preys on a young British couple (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett.)
The novelist himself wrote the screenplay for the enigmatic spy thriller The Innocent (1993), which was on a far broader canvas than earlier adaptations of his novels. Now, following the success of Atonement (2007), McEwan novels are fawned over by the Hollywood studios. They offer big themes and sweeping narratives. They invariably have an erotic undertow and provide actors with the type of challenging, psychologically nuanced roles that earn award nominations. The next McEwan movie will be On Chesil Beach, to be directed by Sam Mendes and with Carey Mulligan in the lead.
One of the better films made from a book by a YBN was James Ivory's version of Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day (1993). The movie had all the period trappings and exhaustive attention to detail associated with Merchant-Ivory. However, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay was also able to capture the emotional charge of Ishiguro's story about a repressed butler in an English country house in the 1930s: the butler (Anthony Hopkins) is desperately trying to keep his feelings in check.
Ivory is well suited to literary adaptations. "I'll be damned if I listen to people who criticise me for taking great pains to do things in the proper way," he once complained about those who questioned his painstaking approach. "That's what I call production value. It's not, absolutely not, some morbid preoccupation with detail for detail's sake." Perhaps ironically, this most traditional of directors was far more successful at filming a book by a YBN than other younger, more radical directors.
Julian Barnes is another of the class of '83 whose work British film-makers have largely ignored. Philip Saville's underrated version of Metroland (1997) is the only British film yet made from one of Barnes's novels. Christian Bale plays the 1960s hedonist, intellectual and rebel who ends up in his thirties as a married man, living a very conventional suburban life and yearning for the road not taken.
When British film-makers have ignored certain YBNs, directors from abroad have sometimes stepped into the breach. In 1996, French director Marion Vernoux made Love, etc., a well-received version of Barnes's 1991 novel Talking It Over. Pat Barker's novel Union Street was made into the Hollywood movie Stanley and Iris (1990). McEwan's short story First Love, Last Rites arrived as a US indie film directed by Jesse Peretz. Restoration, Rose Tremain's novel about a doctor in the court of King Charles II, was made by Miramax into a glossy, big-budget period picture that won acclaim for its production design (if not for its storytelling.) William Boyd's novels Stars and Bars and A Good Man in Africa were both made into films with big-name stars and screenplays from their original author. The former received respectful notices. Critics enjoyed the comic turn from Daniel Day-Lewis as the very English art expert adrift in the Deep South. A Good Man in Africa was less well-liked. "Boyd has made his laugh-out-loud novel into a groan-out-loud movie," complained Time Out.
Look at US movies based on novels by American writers who emerged at the same time as the 1983 YBNs and the picture isn't that much more impressive. The films of Bright Lights, Big City (1988), based on Jay McInerney's novel, and Less Than Zero (1987), adapted from Brett Easton Ellis's first novel, received muted receptions. The response to American Psycho (2000) Mary Harron's controversial film of Easton Ellis's novel, was more positive, but there has never been any sense of a wave of films inspired by writers who emerged in the 1980s.
The irony is that when successful screen adaptations are made of novels, the books that inspired them are acknowledged only in passing. When Atonement was in the race for awards, Keira Knightley, director Joe Wright and Christopher Hampton (who had written the screenplay) were much more in the limelight than Ian McEwan. If –as is being predicted – Never Let Me Go is a success on a similar scale, it's a fair bet that Kazuo Ishiguro won't be taking the plaudits.
'Never Let Me Go' is to open the 54th BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 13 to 28 October