Zadie Smith talks adaptations, binge-watching and Forster

TIFF’s Books On Film guest admits she has her limits – as a screenwriter and TV watcher

If you’re one of those people who dreads going to see a film adaptation of a book you love, get this: Zadie Smith didn’t even make it through the first episode of the mini-series made from her first novel, White Teeth.

To be fair, as she says to a packed audience March 13 at the launch of TIFF’s 2017 edition of the Books On Film series, it’s not that she disliked the adaptation. She simply wasn’t as invested in seeing how her story unfolded on television.

In addition to dazzling the audience with commentary on everything from Aristotle to Brexit to Mad Men, she admits that she has her limits when it comes to binge-watching: nine episodes max the, size of a typical season of a TV series.

“Breaking Bad was so long,” she says about the prospect of binge-watching that show. “I don’t have three and a half months to give something like that. Once you commit, you get home from work and just feel like you have more work to do,” she laughs.

Her mission for this event is to talk about the Merchant/Ivory film A Room With A View, one of her favourite movies, based on the E.M. Forster novel, also one of favourites.

Anticipating that many of us would be baffled that Smith would alight on this old-school period piece made in 1985, she begins her assessment by saying that her main interest in film viewing is pleasure, and A Room With A View delivers.

Of course, that isn’t her final answer: she goes on to analyze Forster’s take on everything from intimacy to class, which she says Forster thought of as a prison, but a very funny one.

She’s fascinated by the fact that the novel’s narrative is about a growing intimacy between George and Lucy, a story that didn’t actually move Forster.

Though he believed in the importance of being yourself,“[as a closeted gay man] he didn’t live it very successfully himself.” she says. “He wasn’t at all interested in men and women falling in love. He could theorize about it and voyeuristically experience it, but he did not live it.”

You can see the gay influence in the film, according to Smith, who notes the homoerotic overtones when three male characters frolic naked in a pond. “And Mr. Beebe [Simon Callow] is a familiar, gay, not particularly religious vicar.”

Smith’s seen A Room With A View many times but gets something out of it with every viewing. This time she’s impressed with the period detail – something for which Merchant/Ivory, after this, their first hit, would become famous.

“I’m writing a historical novel now and I’m learning not to make too much of the period detail, not to focus too much on the details of decor. It just gets in the way. But movies are different. It’s necessary and beautiful.”

The actors, on the other hand, are way too beautiful. 

“Julian Sands [who plays George] is a terrible actor, and his accent is all wrong, but he’s so beautiful. Helena Bonham Carter [Lucy], in her first film role, barely does any real acting at all and just has to be herself.

“Then again, Judi Dench [as a novelist in Florence] and Maggie Smith [as Lucy’s cousin cum chaperone] do enough acting to go around.”

Jane Rule famously told Donna Deitch, who directed Desert Heart, an adaptation of her novel Desert Of The Heart, something like, “You can have my book, but don’t stay too true to it – make your own movie.” Writer Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) in a recent CBC interview also insisted that he was never interested in what he called a digital photostat.

Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala figured that out and took liberties with Forster’s novel, eliminating the thread that suggested George’s father may have killed his wife.

“It doesn’t really make sense in the novel,” Smith says, “and that’s something a scriptwriter has to figure out.”

As for her own ability to write a screenplay, she’s currently working on something with her husband, Nick Laird. But she knows her strengths and weaknesses. She says she’s all about the dialogue.

“I’m always defending the kind of film that speaks. I don’t attach myself to visual cinema that way a true cineaste should. I could watch my favourite movie with my eyes closed.”

The next Books on Film event features Sarah Polley, talking about her film adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story Away From Her on March 27.

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