Film: Not quite Premier League material

In Hollywood, they say good books don't make good films - well, 'Fever Pitch' was certainly a good book... An implausible relationship and the miscasting of Colin Firth combine to trip up the film version of Nick Hornby's classic
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It's a funny old game, cinema. You get one prize-winning but apparently unfilmable book of the early 1990s which takes four years to reach the screen, and then within weeks it is followed by another with an almost identical development profile. The makers of Fever Pitch, and they include the book's author Nick Hornby as screenplay adaptor, must be hoping that they can exploit the openings made for them by The English Patient. They aren't an expensive squad like the boy Minghella put together, but money isn't an issue here.

What is is how they've set about translating Hornby's quiet-voiced autobiography from the intimate experience of solitary reading to the collective consumption of the cinema. I'm afraid my reaction is probably similar to what it would be if I saw my favourite football team run out with a garish new kit, boasting several flashy players I wish we hadn't signed. Hollywood wisdom - that good books don't make good films, while bad ones frequently do - may have some relevance, but other elements have been at work.

First, just one season dominates the narrative - Arsenal's remarkable last-gasp championship win of 1988-89 - rather than the 23 which the book actually spans. This condensation may have been a logistical necessity, but the shorthanding of several key sequences in the book, and the inevitable discarding of others, diminishes the momentum of Hornby's grand obsession for Arsenal. We see the child and the 35-year-old man, but nothing in between.

More damaging is the decision to distance Hornby from the lead character in the film by reinventing him as Paul Ashworth and by getting Colin "Mr Darcy" Firth to play him. This may be down to Hornby's modesty, but is more likely to be the producers' conceit, and it causes the first malfunction in the film.

For one of the attractions of the book was created by the back cover photo of Hornby - balding, the stump of ciggy in hand, cheap leather jacket - standing outside Arsenal's stadium. It shouted "ordinary geezer" to the buying public. But trying to get both the crumpet factor and a nondescript charm out of one actor doesn't work.

Firth is dressed down with a drooping demi-perm of the mid-1970s, and Liam Brady's number 7 shirt, which is partnered with his slovenly school clothes to betray a downbeat but popular English teacher in a north London comprehensive. Despite the trimmings, Firth can't replicate the wry but passionate feeling for football which Hornby gave voice to in the book.

Instead, he opts for a brooding nerdiness which diminishes what he's trying to say about Arsenal being at the centre of his life. Flatly delivered aphorisms about life and football, styled as voice-overs, have the effect of turning him into a Nottingham Forest Gump. Ironically, the less glamorous Mark Strong, as Firth's sounding-board Steve, generates a much more credible and quirkily humorous persona which effectively rebounds on the producers for their starry casting.

The element which most mires the film is Firth's implausible relationship with fellow teacher Sarah Hughes (Ruth Gemmell). Although shadowy women passed through the pages of the book, Hornby has decided - or been prevailed upon - to embody one in the screenplay, but it is only as a counterweight to Firth's sad man. Sarah is a bizarre concoction of sexually-frustrated, fitness-loving, po-faced feminism - she tells her new class to call her "Ms", but then offers Firth a place in her bed as soon as he gives her a lift home. Once she's clocked his Gunners' boxer-shorts, she somehow becomes determined to understand what these boys see in football, despite her flat-mate's warning that men "colonise your mind".

But Sarah's increasing interest in the game is only sketched in. And it's a touch exploitative that the first Arsenal home game she goes to with Ashworth coincides with the Hillsborough disaster up in Sheffield. Together with her own buffeting on the terraces, this confirms her previous suspicions about football and the fan she's taken up with. A clean break should logically follow, but conveniently, by this stage there's an accidental pregnancy to up the emotional stakes, and Sarah concludes that she's been "impregnated by a 12-year- old". This line is about as good as Gemmell's part gets, but, inadvertently, it begs the question of why her character is attracted to a plank like Ashworth in the first place.

As the film finally gains some pace and momentum, during an extended sequence covering Arsenal's remarkable final game at Liverpool, Firth is liberated from his own obsessional gloom - "I have my own life now!" he announces, to which you feel compelled to reply, "about time." Meanwhile Sarah, witnessing the scenes of popular celebrations on Highbury's streets, sees how football can be a positive force and jumps back into Firth's arms. And that's pretty much it: one-nil to the Arsenal.

Had the film developed more of the touching father-son relationship shown in flash-back - Neil Pearson is splendidly caddish in cashmere roll-neck and suede jacket as Firth/Hornby's absent parent - it might have scored more. Bringing in the sequences of Hornby's own therapy for depression might also have saved the main character from his leaden introspection.

There are some decent jokes in the piece - Firth getting his school's under-14 team to practice Arsenal's horrible arms-raised offside-trap - but they're too often smothered by the failure of the romance to convince you of its truth.

Hornby's book caught everyone by surprise, both in its content and its style. With a few exceptions, football had been a literary pariah, matching its social status. But in the latter half of the 1980s certain undercurrents were in play to help change things. Good timing, and even better writing, saw Fever Pitch achieve astronomic sales. It was read aloud by the author on Radio 4, released as an audio-tape, and then turned into a successful one-man play for the theatre. But this film may be one act of merchandising too many.

Stan Hey is a playwright and sportswriter. Kevin Jackson is away