Alan Hollinghurst's experience of seeing The Line of Beauty adapted for the screen
In 2006, The Line of Beauty was dramatized by Andrew Davies for the BBC. Dan Stevens appeared as Nick Guest in a three-part series directed by Saul Dibb.
I've found it a funny and thought-provoking experience having my fictional characters embodied by actors. It has made me realise how little, in some ways, I know about them. Film demands so much more circumstantial detail than the private world of the novel, which is created afresh and uniquely by everyone who reads it. A novel is in that sense entirely imaginary, but in the film of a novel even a minor character, evoked on the page in a phrase or two, needs a frock and an accent and something plausible to do.
Appearances themselves are oddly unimportant. The film of The Line of Beauty has a very good-looking cast, more so than the book, but no one will object to that. Many of the judgments about looks in the novel are made by the young protagonist, Nick Guest, who has an exaggerated thing about beauty, but is made to see that there is no common or even worthwhile standard for it. He idolises the looks of his lover Wani as the most beautiful man he has ever met, but others seem merely to find Wani cute, and observe much more clearly the flaws in his character. Catherine Fedden, the daughter of Nick’s hosts, who becomes a close if difficult friend, is never described in the book as beautiful, merely as slight, nervy and sexually driven. On screen Hayley Atwell is evidently beautiful, but this is simply a bonus, and the underlying nature of the character, the mania and gloom, the childish clear-sightedness, remains the same.
The relationship of Nick and Catherine is the thing that has been most enhanced in Andrew Davies’s extremely faithful adaptation. Viewers will take away an idea, which I toyed with but didn’t develop in the book, of their acting out a kind of love story, of an impossible kind (since Nick is gay), but none the less a truer and more ideal bond than the perishable relationships they have with their actual lovers. This is touching and credible, and their greater intimacy and openness with each other cleverly solves the problem of getting Nick’s thoughts and feelings, often secret and interiorised in the book, out in the open on screen. They are given a new but dramatically very cogent final scene together. And there is an intriguing sense that something in the medium of film itself needs to bring the good-looking boy and girl leads romantically together; to which the story-line of The Line of Beauty keeps, very effectively, saying no. The film brings out something that might hardly strike the reader, and makes a subtly cinematic point of it.
I realise in retrospect that when I’m creating a character, though I need to be able to hear them, and to have some sense of their scale and magnetism, I never really see them very precisely. It is the quality of their presence that seems to matter most. I have a feeling for, say, Nick’s size (about five foot six) and I know that he has curly blond hair and blue eyes, but I’ve no idea what his nose or his hands are like. Similarly with Gerald Fedden, the wealthy Tory MP in whose house Nick spends the four years of the story, whose only particularised features are a large mouth and a hawkish nose. I see him clearly from the corner of my eye, but when I look at him full face he is a blur. It’s not a calculated strategy, but I realise that such blurs, probably common to most writers, invite the unconscious participation of the reader in imagining the detail of a character; they are also very easily filled and animated by actors. Dan Stevens, who plays Nick with consummate subtlety and wit, is six feet tall and has brown hair; Tim McInnerny, a brilliantly funny and frightening Gerald, has a normal-sized mouth, and has been given a fantastic ginger hairpiece with an unruly forelock. Their images now co-exist with and in some respects have overlaid those vaguer images I had of the characters when I was writing them.
Davies has said he prefers his authors dead, and I can see there is only a limited usefulness in a live one when it comes to adaptation. Early on in filming, the director, Saul Dibb, and several of the actors asked me questions about the characters that I was at a loss to answer. What would Gerald have for breakfast? What does Rachel, his elegant and wealthy wife, do all day? For much of the book Rachel is a mere murmur of assent, and I knew nothing about her that I hadn’t put on the page. But the camera needed to know more, and so did the actors. When Catherine and her boyfriend were recording the sounds of lively sex to be heard through the wall by Nick and Wani, someone asked me whether Catherine habitually faked her orgasms. I felt that, like one of my favourite novelists, Ronald Firbank, I could only answer, as he did to any direct question, ‘I wonder.’
Nick's two love-affairs, with Leo, a black council worker, and Wani, a closeted millionaire, are central to the book, though quite elliptically presented, and there was some discussion about how they should be depicted. Davies saw at once that the viewer would need to see the lovers together to understand the terms of their relationship, and he wrote in two brief love-scenes that are only alluded to in the book, and both of which, emotionally, are pleasingly complex. The story is set in the mid-1980s, when it certainly could not have been televised, and part of the interest of the period for me was that life then was much more difficult for gay men than it is now. For the wonderful young actors, who are the same age as their characters, this difficulty was just another historical aspect of the piece. I’ve no intention of outing the straight members of the cast; besides there isn’t room. But it was heartening that Dan Stevens and Alex Wyndam, as Wani, should be making their screen debuts in gay roles, and that Don Gilet, star of Babyfather and 55 Degrees North, should choose to play Leo. It showed that Catherine’s prediction that ‘the 80s are going on for ever’ was, in that respect at least, mercifully untrue.
Originally published in the Guardian, 13 May 2006
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