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Christopher Hampton

Adapting Atonement

by Jay S. Jacobs

When adapting a complex novel like Ian McEwan’s best-seller Atonement, it was important to find a screenwriter who could do justice to the epic scope and passions on the pages of the book. It made sense to give the job to a writer who has specialized in adaptations, someone who could understand the structure and intricacy of the source material. The man chosen for the monumental task was Christopher Hampton.  

Hampton, whose career has spanned decades in film and on stage, first made a real name for himself by bringing the classic French play Les Liaisons Dangereuse to the screen as Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Uma Thurman. Since then Hampton wrote screenplays of classic tales such as A Doll’s House, The Good Father and The Quiet American. Hampton has also directed three films: Carrington, The Secret Agent and Imagining Argentina. 

On the stage, Hampton also wrote the book for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash musical Sunset Boulevard as well as Uncle Vanya, Hedda Gabler and Don Juan. 

However, Atonement may be his most layered and assured work yet. A sprawling, beautiful look at how one little girl’s lie can destroy three lives; Atonement goes from mid-30s opulence to World War II horror in London and France. A star-crossed couple (James McAvoy and Keira Knightley) are torn apart when her little sister (played at different points in her life by Saiorse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) tells a lie which sends the man to jail and then war. 

“Christopher Hampton did such a great job of throwing the characters in and out and about,” said star McAvoy, appreciatively about the final script. 

A week before the premiere of Atonement, Hampton sat down with us at the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss the process of adapting such a beloved piece of literature.

How did you set about adapting the novel Atonement? 

Well, it’s a long story, actually. I applied for the job, because I read the book while I was on holiday at the end of 2001. I thought there was real potential there. If you did right it could be really a good movie. So when I got back to London, I contacted my agent and said I would love to do a screenplay of Atonement. She said, “Well, join the group.” There were a lot of writers interested in doing it. Ian McEwan made it in his contract – he was executive producer – he had retained the right to be consulted on who they choose as the screenwriter. So I had dinner with Ian and set out my feelings about the book – the way it should be done. I passed the audition. What I said to him, what I was intending to do, didn’t actually bear much resemblance to what we wound up with at the far end. That’s the way it goes when you work on something and you get deeper and deeper into it. I started with a different director; I started with Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal). I worked with him for just over a year; I think and did maybe three drafts, consulting at each point, on each draft with Ian.  

At the end of that period we had the script with sort of a framing device, which began with the old woman arriving back at a hotel, which her childhood home had been turned into. You saw her from time to time in the course of the film. You heard her voiceover reflecting on this, that or the other. In the book – if you know – it’s in three really big chunks. What I’d done was I kept the first half pretty much as you see it now, but the Dunkirk sequences and the hospital sequences, which happened at the same time. I had combined them – cut back and forth between them.  We saw Briony learning to be a nurse and we saw Robbie Turner in France fighting his way back to [Cecilia]. Anyway, at a certain point one of those things happened, which often happens with films, where you think they’re not going to make it. They’re scared of this picture. There’s a silence that’s been going on for just that bit too long. At which point Richard Eyre was offered Notes on a Scandal, and off he went. So I got introduced to Joe Wright, who said, “Well, yeah the script is fine, but can we start from scratch?” (laughs)

What was it like working with Joe compared to Richard?

It was different mostly in that their approach was very different. What Joe basically did was he set about kicking away the crutches. He said “Let’s try and do it without a frame, so the audience at the end of the film is as surprised as the readers are at the end of the book.” He said, “Let’s take away the voiceover, try and convey everything without that particular help. And let’s try not to worry about the linearity of the story. Let’s get back to those three big chunks.” Another thing that he did was… I don’t know whether we might have arrived at this anyway, but he certainly raised the idea… when we started we were thinking we were going to have to have one actress playing Briony at twelve and Briony at eighteen. So we were thinking maybe we would get a fifteen-year-old actress who could age down and age up. That was the first thing that came into everyone’s head. As we were working on it and putting it back into those blocks, we sort of realized that with the Dunkirk block there would be like twenty minutes between seeing the child and seeing the eighteen year old. That would probably make it much easier for us to cast two actresses. That was probably the single biggest decision that we made, because to have that child – leave alone the fact that she’s a good actress, Saoirse, in parts she’s brilliant – to have that child in the first half of the story really, really explained the story in a way that wouldn’t have been explained by an older actress pretending to be a twelve year old, I don’t think. I can’t see how it would work. 

So we did all those things and more, really. Eventually after another year of various tasks for Joe, Joe and I went away to Italy for two weeks and just went through every single page. He’s very obsessive, Joe. Most of the really good directors I’ve worked with are completely obsessive. Right up until shooting he was ringing me up saying, “On page 80…” He emailed me his rewrites of scenes, saying, “This is not right. Something like this….” Then I would try and work out what it was he wanted and write it and email it back again. Or I would say, no, this is not a good idea. We had a good enough relationship to do that.

The Dunkirk sequence, was it in the script as one long, five-minute take?

No, it was not. In fact what we did was we were faithful to the book in that sequence too. If you read the book, you’ll know that it’s all about these huge colonies of refugees. The enormity of France being attacked by German fighter planes, strafed. It’s a ragged conflict between the retreating soldiers and the advancing Germans. We had all that. We had all those things in the script, and there was a budget problem. They wanted to make the film for $30 million. They insisted on it, because they felt all along that it was a risky venture. So, that was the obvious section to start weeding out. Eventually, we thought we could make a virtue of this… by just having these three soldiers, sort of like The Wizard of Oz or something, in some phantasmagorical way walking up through these landscapes, and then suddenly arriving at this teeming hell. 

As we got closer to it, Joe said, “Can we take all these various scenes, these montage images that we have, and do them all in one shot? And then only have to have the extras, a thousand extras, for one day.” And so it was. It was pretty nerve-racking, because we rehearsing at six o’clock in the morning… this was highly weather dependent. We started shooting at four in the afternoon, and we got three takes done, the third of which was at magic hour, you know when the sun is shedding these beautiful lights. Then we went back for a fourth take, in the middle of which the Steadicam operator fell over. (laughs) I mean, the guy had been walking backwards carrying this vast thing through the sand all day, so it’s not surprising. The third take as it turns out was the only one that was workable.

Can you talk about working with a storyline with two protagonists and an antagonist who becomes our protagonist toward the end?

Well, in a way, the sleight of hand that we operated is that the book is about Briony. She is the central characters and the backbone of the whole book. We somehow felt that we have to shift the focus. We’d have to make the film about what Briony was interested in, rather than only about Briony. Briony was obviously interested and obsessed with these two. As a child, being in love with this man, all of that was very interesting. We needed to spend some time with those two characters [Robbie and Cecilia] together, and we needed to admit to ourselves that their relationship was the center of the film. We just kind of danced around those problems as best we could.

It sounds like as a writer you had more involvement on the set than most get a chance to experience.

It really in the end comes down to the relationship between the writer and the director. Sometimes, I’ve had very good relationships with directors. Stephen Frears, as I’ve said, has in his contract that the writer had to be on the set. But, Joe’s not like that. We cut off, and I didn’t go to the set much. I went on Dunkirk day. And because I speak French I went and did work on the French language sections. I put my head around the door once or twice. But, he had it clear by the time he embarked on it. He knew what he wanted and he didn’t need the writer. It all depends on the individual director and what their temperament is, really.

Did you see Vanessa Redgrave as the actress for Briony as an older woman? It’s a welcome surprise when she shows up.

He did a very smart thing, Joe. This is really good thinking for a director. He cast the child first. Most people would be tempted to cast the eighteen-year old first. He cast the child first, and then he had to find two actresses who would plausibly be the grown-up versions of the child. Vanessa was always on this quite a short list of those distinguished old English actresses. I think Vanessa is the one who can most reliably be expected to break your heart. There’s something tragic about her face that works terribly well. And she did sort of look like [Saoirse]. Joe rehearsed the three actresses together a lot, so that they all devised ways of walking and mannerisms and so on that linked them. That spread from one section to another.

I’ve heard a rumor that you’re doing the adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

I’m not doing that anymore. I started out on that, but I slightly fell out with them on the topic that I often fall out with, which is that they seemed to want to go too far away from the book for my tastes.

What attracts you to the sweep and complexity of stories like that?

Oh, I love doing the big crossword puzzle. (laughs) You know, all screenwriters get fired from time to time, and I have been five or six times. And it almost always has to do with an issue of my saying “You know this is not how it is in the book. Why do you want to change it? The change you’re proposing is not as interesting as what the book is proposing.” You never know. It’s a long process. You might end up going back. I have also in the past had experiences where they say goodbye to you and then they come up and ask you to come back again. It was a really interesting piece of work to do, so I don’t regret it. But it’s in the hands of someone else now.

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2007 Eric Charbonneau.  Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.
#2 © 2007 Alex Bailey.  Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.
#3 © 2007 Alex Bailey.  Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.
#4 © 2007 Alex Bailey.  Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.
#5 © 2007 Alex Bailey.  Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 7, 2007.

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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 7, 2007.