The adaptor

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The Independent Culture
"People don't trust you because you're so fly. A proper artist is supposed to hunker down and produce a distinctive body of work.'' Prolific writers engender deep suspicion in the popular imagination. Christopher Hampton's 30-year career as playwright, screenwriter and now film director comes as a sharp rejoinder to the romantic myth of the starving artist struggling in his garret for years. Hampton's hallmark is notoriously elusive, mainly because of the breadth of his output, from early plays like Total Eclipse and The Philanthropist, the BBC series of Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, stage and screen versions of Laclos's epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the book and lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard (with Don Black) through to Carrington, his debut as film director.

This month alone sees the West End opening of his translation of Yasmina Reza's European hit Art - with Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Ken Stott as three friends whose relationship is rocked when one goes out and buys a 5ft by 4ft stark white canvas - while his very first play When Did You Last See My Mother? is currently being revived at Battersea Arts Centre. Last week he returned from Los Angeles via a screening at the Toronto Film Festival of Conrad's The Secret Agent, which he adapted and directed, and he's already casting his next film, based on Somerset Maugham's Gauguin- inspired The Moon and Sixpence. Not content with all that, he's also moving house. For someone working to so terrifying a schedule, this urbane, softly spoken, still boyish-looking 50-year-old seems astonishingly calm. But then, as he ruefully admits, after being openly lazy when young, ''I gradually slid into the position of being a workaholic, which I don't really approve of.''

The actress Penelope Wilton, who recently played Lady Ottoline Morrell in Carrington, Hampton's version of life and love among the Bloomsbury Set, also played the man-eating Araminta in The Philanthropist back in 1970. ''It's remarkable. He hasn't changed. Same glasses and the same laugh. He's one of the funniest men I've ever met.'' Yet even Wilton is unable to put her finger on Hampton's distinctive qualities as a dramatist, although she detects a very down-to-earth quality. ''It's not overly emotional. It's very sharp and humorous. There's no padding. He gets to the nub of things quickly.'' That stripped-down simplicity and dark wit were very much to the fore in the screen version of Liaisons, directed by Stephen Frears, which won Hampton an Oscar and a rare accolade from the critic Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. ''It gets you to feel the emotions under the clever, petty calculations," Kael wrote. "It's like discovering the carnal roots of chess.''

If Hampton's writing itself lacks the immediate authorial tone of the more poetic Pinter or the elliptical quality of his old schoolfriend David Hare, the give-away is often in his dramatis personae. A latter-day Vasari, he has chronicled the lives of artists such as Rimbaud, Brecht, Mann, Dora Carrington and Lewis Carroll. When not musing on the muse, he has become a great impersonator, translating or adapting the likes of Ibsen, Moliere, Odon von Horvth, Graham Greene and Anita Brookner. He's even done a screenplay of Donna Tartt's bestselling classical thriller The Secret History. ''I'm very interested in stories about secrets. They're inherently dramatic.'' For someone so private (White Chameleon - 1991- is his only autobiographical work), the shift into the ego-driven world of film directing is a major departure.

It was in 1966 that When Did You Last See My Mother? made him the youngest West End playwright since Aristophanes and delivered him into the shrewd hands of the legendary agent Peggy Ramsay. He became a writer. Directing never appealed until very recently. ''I quite liked there being someone on whom the burdens lay, someone with an objective eye. But now I'm afraid I'm quite addicted to it.''

It - film-directing, that is - happened by accident. He wrote Carrington nearly 20 years ago and Mike Newell was to have directed it. ''He rang up in despair. He was having huge problems editing a film and couldn't see an end to it. Of course, that turned out to be Four Weddings and a Funeral but he didn't know it then." The French producers suggested that Hampton take over Newell's role, but it was only when Emma Thompson concurred that he finally agreed - "and unexpectedly found it was wonderful. I just loved it."

He has been feeding the directing habit with another of his passions, Joseph Conrad, although he never intended to direct The Secret Agent either. ''Bob Hoskins was originally going to direct and play the Professor [a part now taken by Robin Williams] but I decided he should play the central character of Verloc. Last year we realised that we simply weren't going to find nine months together, so I said, 'Why not let me do it?' He agreed without a murmur.''

Unlike Hitchcock's 1936 version, Sabotage, Hampton sticks fairly religiously to Conrad's original and coaxes excellent performances from Hoskins and Eddie Izzard - as an unlikely Russian ambassador - despite a ludicrously tight budget and shooting schedule (his insistence on building a set for Verloc's home cost him a week's filming).

Everyone is hoping that the project will not go the same way as his last screenplay, a kind of "Upstairs Downstairs meets Jekyll and Hyde" and one of the biggest flops in cinema history. Directed by Stephen Frears and starring Julia Roberts, Mary Reilly was scorched by Paul Rudnick in his persona as Premiere film-columnist Libby Gelman-Waxner: ''It's best on a $45m project not to open with a shot of your star down on her hands and knees scrubbing the front step.''

Hampton sees its failure as an all too vivid example of the horrors of Hollywood. ''By the time Frears got control back, it was very difficult to proceed.'' Frears has magnanimously taken the blame in print. ''One of the things that may have been his fault,'' says Hampton, in typically deferential manner, ''is that he wouldn't let them fire me, which they were keen to do.''

Perhaps he should have known better. He'd written about writers' bitterness towards producers in his 1984 play Tales from Hollywood, and had been regaling friends like David Hare with stories about ghastly people around pools. ''He's the best dinner companion, telling self-deprecating stories about the crass ways in which people have rejected his scripts. All those stories were amusing but depressing,'' says Hare. ''I felt to go back to it with Sunset Boulevard was flogging it to death.'' Hare is also a touch equivocal on the subject of Hampton directing Carrington. ''All writers like to find a way of getting out of the house,'' he laughs, ''but nobody could question Christopher's motives or his integrity. Film directors are notorious for not telling actors what's going on, but his actors couldn't believe his decency and ingenuousness. At the same time, he's very firm about what he wants. But when a writer works with a director, he has to answer the hard questions, like 'What is it about?'. Carrington was extremely well-directed, but I don't think it answered that crucial question.''

At one point in the film, Lytton Strachey (played by Jonathan Pryce) remarks loftily, ''I have heard that there are people who actually enjoy writing.'' ''The autobiographical scene,'' grins Hampton, who despite all evidence to the contrary, still finds it a difficult job. Strachey's character, an exquisitely well-mannered man, a writer and observer, has distinct parallels with Hampton himself. When Did You Last See My Mother?, which the writer describes as a modern-day Jacobean melodrama with a good plot and as ''a glorious fluke'', was followed by Total Eclipse, the work closest to Hampton's heart. He has revised it three times for the stage and written a film of it which was never released here. A portrait of the 19th-century poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, ''it raises all the questions in my mind that have never been resolved about what the responsibilities of being a writer might be or what it implies. To what extent it cuts you off from life or enables you to participate in it.''

It's that sense of responsibility that unites Hampton's impressive body of work. In Sunset Boulevard or the impending Art, it's the responsibilities of the artist; in Treats or Liaisons it's more personal; the very act of translating is one of responsibility. He, of course, wouldn't make such claims. ''It's a little like what I take to be the old studio directors' idea. I like to work. The work keeps coming and in some way I put a kind of print on it, but the work is what's important, not the print. Howard Hawks or William Wyler served the material. That's sort of what I've tried to do.''n

'When Did You Last See My Mother?' is at BAC, London SW11 (0171-223 2223) to Sun. 'Art' is now previewing at Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2 (0171- 369 1736). 'The Secret Agent' will be released next year