Iam eight months into the writing of what looks like being a very long novel, and at last I think I can see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. During the process of writing I try to keep my fetishistic quirks and superstitious habits to a minimum, but some are impossible to subdue. At the moment, for some weird reason, I only seem able to work in the afternoons. And I write my first draft in pencil and have been using the same (propelling) pencil for about 15 years now and consequently don't dare change. But another regular habit has grown markedly worse — and I blame the Internet. I'm a compulsive book-buyer anyway, but when I'm writing a novel I tend to buy anything associated with the subject of the book by way of 'research'. I sift through bibliographies noting relevant books and then I go on the Web and buy them. It is so easy and so efficient. The diaries of Robert Bruce Lockhart (two vols)? Bought in seconds, arrive within days. The letters of Katherine Mansfield? Ditto. A 1950s guidebook to Iceland? No problem. The two most guilty websites are abe.com and bookfincler.com — which I happily share with you. But be warned: it can get out of hand. I'm currently on a twoto threebook-a-day habit and even I'm beginning to get worried.
I've spent the last few weeks in southwest France and as a result missed the broadcast on Channel 4 of my adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour. I've returned to a mass of gratifying reviews, and the peripheral comment that the film seems to have encouraged is intriguing — from a combination of dogged exegetes (snuffling out every Catholic omission),
genuine Waugh enthusiasts, and, inevitably, the odd, closed mind rushing to judgment without even bothering to see the finished product. Having adapted several novels for the screen (including three of my own), it seems to me that film and television adaptations of novels are handicapped by certain misguided expectations — more so than adaptations that occur in any other art form. Commentators, too, seem to have no real, practical idea of what is involved in turning prose fiction into filmed drama. I think the problem arises from the assumption that the processes of film-making are in some way close to novel-writing. In fact the two forms are quite distinct, in the same degree that a radio play is quite different from a stage play, or a stage play from an Opera. No one, for example, goes to see Verdi's Falstaff, comes home to read Shakespeare's The Meny Wives of Wind sor, and then berates Verdi for his audacious adaptation. Similarly, no one in his right mind would say that Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd is better than Herman Melville's. Yet such comparisons and judgments are routinely and unthinkingly made when a novel is filmed. Perhaps we should change the word 'adaptation' to 'transformation' and such illogical comparisons would then be seen in the absurd light they deserve. Saying that the film is 'better' than the novel (or vice versa) is as meaningful as saying that an apple is a 'better' fruit than an orange.
Ithink, however, that there is some instinctive understanding of the fundamental alteration that occurs in book-to-film adaptation, for why else would people, having seen and enjoyed the film or the television series, want to read the novel? All adaptations actively encourage readings of the original source, not because people want to see what has been changed or left out but because the aesthetic plea
sures involved are entirely different. The pleasures you derive from seeing, for example, the film of Dangerous Liaisons are quite different from those prompted by reading Choderlos de Laclos's epistolary novel (or, indeed, from seeing Christopher Hampton's excellent play). We don't need to rank those respective pleasures in a notional hierarchy — each has its own validity. The house of fiction has many windows, Henry James said, and that applies to all the seven arts: we want to keep as many open as possible.
I'm off to New York in a couple of weeks, where I look forward to the latest rash of George `Dubya' jokes. Frankly, I don't think the great majority of the American people give a toss about their President's intellectual abilities. In any event, the man himself seems pretty unperturbed by the remorseless guying. He's like a Hollywood studio executive, where an extra thick skin comes as standard issue. My newest Hollywood executive story was told to me by my friend Bruce Beresford. Bruce had written a script about European women in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. The executive who read it was ecstatic with joy except for one problem. What's that? Bruce asked. 'You have to change the name of that town,' the executive said. 'It's too silly, no one's ever going to believe a town could have a name like that.' 'What town would that be?' Bruce asked, baffled. 'Singapore,' came the confident reply.
The beginning of 2001 has been darkened by the shocking and tragic death of Sarah Raphael. I've been a friend of the Raphael family for 25 years and I knew Sarah when she was still at school. It was a wonderful experience seeing her turn surely and steadily into a painter of the very first rank. But this was no quick fix, a matter of hype or one-smart-idea exploitation. Over two decades she subjected her great gifts to the ordeal of very hard, unremitting and relentless work. The results will always be there for all to see, but the example is just as salutary. Art isn't easy. as Stephen Sondheim reminded us, and Sarah Raphael's determined and stubborn ascent to the tremendous heights she reached is a potent reminder of the role that hard graft has to play in the shaping of the genuine and serious artist. Amid all the sadness and sorrow, we shouldn't forget that rich and enduring legacy.