“The Joy of Adaptation”: Conversations with Colm Tóibín and Nick Hornby

H. Stecopoulos

Emory Cohen as "Tony" and Saoirse Ronan as "Eilis" in BROOKLYN. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Spoiler alert! This piece will reveal important aspects of both the novel and the film Brooklyn.

Several years ago, my wife and I both read Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn and fell in love. The quiet and affective style, the deft characterization, the smoothly running plot: the novel thoroughly seduced us. We surrendered to Tóibín’s spell and urged our friends and relations to buy the volume. We purchased all of the copies at Prairie Lights, our local bookstore, and gave them to people at the slightest mention of the words “Ireland,” “immigration,” and “fiction.” We became apostles for this extraordinary novel, Tóibínites proselytizing for Brooklyn.

Imagine my pleasant shock, then, when Fox Searchlight’s publicists contacted The Iowa Review office to see if I’d like to interview Tóibín and Nick Hornby, the screenplay writer, about the cinematic adaption of this lapidary work. I agreed, of course, and within a few weeks found myself in a private screening of the unreleased film, observed carefully for any suspect actions by a Marcus Theater employee. He watched me; I watched the movie.

Colm TóibínMy love of Tóibín’s novel hardly recommended the film. Like many bookish types, I usually respond to a cinematic adaptation with bitter resignation. Why spend twelve dollars to see a favorite literary work undone? Better to avoid the movie altogether and preserve one’s memory of a good read. But that’s hardly the situation in this case. As a film, Brooklyn works, and works well. Saoirse Ronan does an extraordinary job with the role of Eilis, while Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters bring their respective character roles to rich life. And the settings—peaceful Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s hometown, and a dignified and decidedly pre-hipster Brooklyn—play their part in animating this historical tale. 

And yet, for all its success, the film does revise Tóibín’s plot, and in substantial ways. Despite my attachment to the novel, I didn’t recoil at these cinematic alterations; instead I found that they added to the narrative experience in ways I couldn’t immediately explain. This adaptation enriched rather than reduced its literary source, a strange phenomenon that raised important questions about why certain adaptations succeed while so many others fail. As I left the theater, I realized I wanted to ask Tóibín and Hornby about those changes, particularly the significant transformation of the novel’s closing scenes. Each of the interviews I conducted thus focused (for the most part) on the issue of translating literature into cinema, a process with which both writers were familiar long before they collaborated on Brooklyn.

I began by querying each writer about his respective experiences with the process of using a literary work as the basis for a film. For Tóibín, the process of adaptation speaks to the complexity of the novel as a form. As he explained, “According to Michael Ondaatje, every novel has buried within it an inner short story. The job of the film is to identity the buried short story. Taking note of detail gets the narrative back to the original emotion important to that story.” Rather than changing, let alone corrupting, a novel, the way some readers may fear, cinematic adaptation for Tóibín can return a long literary work to its condensed and affective core. But Tóibín went on to stress the more commercial aspects of adaption, a process that for him speaks to matters of audience and visibility no writer can afford to ignore. “Dealing with adaptation is also a rite of passage for novelists,” he argued. “It helps your novel get better known and encourages more people to read the book. The adaptation of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and McEwan’s Atonement have made a difference in the way these novels are received. Novelists don’t like to admit this. We’re all supposed to be poets unconcerned with such things. But some novelists lend themselves to adaptation. Ian McEwan’s narrative strength invites adaptation.” By the same token, he cautioned writers young and old against writing fiction with an eye to future cinematic rewards: “If you wrote with the cinema in mind, you wouldn’t write well. It wouldn’t work to allow possibilities of future adaptation influence your decisions as a writer.” For this eminent novelist, adaptation is at once a valued inevitability and something that should occur in a timely, almost organic, manner. 

Nick HornbyHornby concurred with Tóibín’s understanding of adaptation as generic disinterment, but the author of High Fidelity had a somewhat different take on the matter. For Hornby, adaptation is a vexed matter that inevitably forces the writer to recognize major differences in medium. When I asked him whether his involvement with the adaptations of his own works offered any lessons, he demurred: “I wish there were lessons. They were fresh forms of disaster. You cannot control the process. However tempting it is for the novelist to think they can guarantee accuracy, novelists don’t know much about filmmaking; they might know something about film, but what do they know about character actors, directors, editors, score composers?” In Hornby’s view, translating one’s literary text into cinema tends to reveal the limits of the writer’s—not the filmmaker’s—knowledge.

Yet if the adaptations of his own works led him to certain tough-minded conclusions about novelists, Hornby’s experience adapting other writers’ texts has proven rewarding and highlighted the value of the literary experience. “I’m very conscious of my book being a product of my own imagination. It’s about your themes, your concerns, your language,” he told me, [but] “the joy of adaptation is having access to someone else’s head. I’ve done three adaptations—An Education, Wild, and Brooklyn—and I’ve been very emotionally connected to all three.” Adaptation names the pleasure of inhabiting another consciousness to the extent that a new relationship emerges, one that links two writers through collaborative work on a new artistic project.

One senses in Hornby’s response the delight in gaining access to what Tóibín called “the original emotion important to [the] story,” in teasing from the writer’s consciousness the core affective narrative pivotal to the longer work. And yet genre also structures “the joy of adaptation” in other, no less intimate ways. When I asked him about the differences between adapting nonfiction and fiction, Hornby highlighted the greater interpersonal care involved in the former task. Referring to Wild, he said, “The screenplay writer has a greater responsibility to a memoir. Cheryl [Strayed] became a friend. Someone I remain close to. I didn’t ever want her to feel uncomfortable. If something made her uncomfortable, I was prepared to remove the scene. The most important thing [when adapting a memoir] is not hurting the writer.” For Hornby, the somewhat invasive understanding of adaptation as “access to someone else’s head” retreats in face of a genre preoccupied with the confessional if not the traumatic. The filmic transformation of nonfiction demands and inspires a particularly charged relationship between memoirist and screenplay writer.

Our broad discussion of adaptation soon segued to Brooklyn. When I asked Tóibín to comment on the strangeness of turning such a neo-Jamesian novel into a film, he first reminded me of the many adaptations of James’s novels—“the relationship between film and James’s work is quite close”—and pointed out that studio interest would “have delighted James. He wanted to be rich and famous.” More importantly, Tóibín drew a connection between Eilis’s story and a classic James novella in order to emphasize cinema’s capacity to outdo the literary at its own game: “Brooklyn shares certain qualities with Washington Square. Washington Square’s main character isn’t notably intelligent. She’s a young woman who doesn’t go about the place asserting herself. But film can accomplish a great deal. If your character is concealed in the shadow in the self, that's something the camera can capture. The camera can capture silent suffering, the silence within the self. The camera can do inwardness.” If Ondaatje found in cinematic adaptation the disclosure of the short story buried within the novel, Tóibín finds in the camera’s gaze an opportunity to manifest emotional pain that may go unnoticed on the page.

Sound can also reveal that “silent suffering,” and the film version of Brooklyn avails itself of that strategy by employing a voiceover during the concluding scenes. Tóibín considered Hornby’s decision “a very brave thing...to do, and I was very moved by it,” but the Irish writer was still more captivated by what is arguably the film’s greatest departure from its literary source: the decision to have Eilis return to Brooklyn and reunite with Tony in a touching embrace. In response to that closing image, Tóibín returned once again to the differences between fiction and film, with an emphasis on the latter’s capacity to deliver certain narrative pleasures unavailable to the novelist. Speaking of that final reunion, Tóibín claimed, “I couldn’t do it in a novel. In a novel you give the reader enough, as if to say 'that’s all that happened now.' But if I wrote a screenplay, I’d go the next step and bring Eilis the whole way home, to that million-dollar moment where she sees Tony with his tools.” 

Tóibín didn’t know about these alterations. As Hornby told me, “The changes were my decisions exclusively.” No surprise, of course, given that both writers understand the adaptation of fiction to the screen as a process that prioritizes the needs and capacities of the screenplay writer, not the novelist. For Hornby, the alteration of the conclusion proved two-fold. “I think there are two changes at the end,” he told me. “The first change occurs in the scene in Kelly’s office when she tells Eilis she knows she’s married. We decided to give Eilis more agency than she has in the novel. Eilis says, 'I’d forgotten what it was like here in Ireland.' And she states her name: 'Mrs. Tony Fiorello.'" That decision to confer more agency on the heroine leads, in turn, to the closing shot. As Hornby explained the reunion that concludes the film, “In the book [Eilis is] somewhat defeated by what’s happened. But I felt we had a choice as moviemakers, had earned a right to do it. I don’t think it feels cheap or sentimental. You want the best for her.” When I asked Hornby if he would have rejected the reunion scene as saccharine had the director suggested it, he laughed and agreed, but then reiterated how the new scene worked to complete the film’s narrative arc. 

For Hornby, as for Tóibín, cinematic adaptation allows for a more palpable realization of readerly hope and expectation. And this power to elaborate on the text speaks to film’s capacity to bring the story more fully into being. The literary achieves its fullest narrative effects through our ubiquitous visual culture. But it does so because the joy of adaptation is, in the end, inseparable from the pleasure of collaboration. Film for Tóibín and Hornby signifies as a brilliant and enabling medium, an indispensable means of communing with each other, another way of together writing to the world.


H. Stecopoulos is the editor-in-chief of The Iowa Review.