Print Arts and Lit Editor, Zach Mayford interviews Hugh Stoddart about ‘To The Lighthouse’.
Q: What initially draws you to a transcription project?
A: With To The Lighthouse it was entirely down to me – I loved the novel. At the time I was living in the West country and so was Colin Gregg, the director. With that particular one, when we proposed to the BBC we said ‘oh no you can’t there’s no dialogue in it’, which is a fairly simplistic view of what is involved. An artists who I was working with at the time immediately said ‘it’s a terribly visual novel’. In that case, it was a sort of love affair with the novel – I just really wanted to make it into film. It’s usually quite a personal response. I was actually given a choice by a producer to adapt a Jane Austen novel, or The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. I didn’t feel drawn to Jane Austen, even though she was immensely successful and everybody loves her. For me, her work doesn’t have much of a political dimension, which is what I like, whereas George Eliot was quite a political writer. Her characters are caught up in great economical forces, like wealth, poverty and change. I was drawn to that rather than the Austen I could’ve done – no doubt a terrible move career-wise. Usually it’s a personal response while also looking at the technical implications.
Q: You’ve often preferred the term ‘translations’ instead of ‘adaptations’. Could you unpack that for us?
A: The term ‘adaptation’ implies that you can take a novel and turn it into a film. People tend to read scenes in the novel and think ‘well, why aren’t they in the film?’ I think the reason I prefer ‘translation’ is that you have to make it work in a completely new medium. A medium that works in a different way. For example, there may be something in the novel which is half a page long which for you is a major scene; there may be something which is a great length in the novel which you don’t need, or you can convey in a single shot. That’s why I tend to resist the term ‘adaptation’ in a way. With To the Lighthouse and with Mill on the Floss I said ‘screenplay by me, based on the novel by’ rather than ‘adapted from’. You have to make something new. I’ve got a quote somewhere by steven durrige or chris Hampton or someone who use this term. ‘Translation’ is the term because you have to use a different language. Film is a different language to prose.
Q: Do you think screenwriting is a unique medium in some ways?
A: The main difference is that it isn’t a complete thing in and of itself. You deliver your script and then something else happens, which is the shooting of that script. I mostly work quite closely with directors- I don’t sell scripts, I sort of become involved with the project. Things will change in the process of filming. People tend to talk about a three-stage process: script, shooting, editing. Things change each time. The unique thing about screenwriting is you have try to be comfortable with that, and to try to reduce the process. If you write a good script, then less should have to happen at the second two stages. I’m trying to give enough clues or pointers to the director to imply how the film will be. You have to accept the situation, and you will not be seen as the ‘author’ of the film, the director or producer claims that. Writers have to bite the bullet on that. If you want total control over what you write you can’t be a screenwriter, you have to think in terms of prose or poetry.
Q: With a lot of modern adaptation, the novel writers are often on set or in close collaboration with producers and directors. What do you think of the collaborative effort?
A: In most cases, if a producer buys the rights to a novel, they will want creative control over the process of making a film. Often the rights to a novel will not be sold because a novelist insists on having an artistic input, the producer will feel concerned that they don’t have proper ‘title’ as we say in the trade: they don’t have proper control over the project. There are exceptions. Margaret Atwood is an exception and she wanted to be closely involved right from the beginning and has made a huge success of it. There are no rules, all I’m saying is that the general tendency is not to get too involved. It’s unusual, but it does happen. Patterns are changing, and the relationship between television and cinema is also changing. Going back to the 80s when I was doing a lot of films, when we had Alan Bates going into a TV film that was seen as a risky thing. There was a time when there was a lot of snobbery around TV as opposed to film, people would prefer to work in advertising than TV drama.
Q: In terms of TTL, could you talk through some of the challenges that come with adapting Woolf for the screen?
A: As far as I can remember, the first decision we made was that we wanted to locate it in Cornwall, and not in the Hebrides where the novel is set, because we knew it was based on Woolf’s own childhood in Cornwall during the summers, as her family have a house there. Also, as Colin Gregg and myself were based in the West country we knew where we could find locations, so that was the first change. I was helped in that by reading some of Virginia Woolf’s letters where she said she thought the location wasn’t very convincing, and she only set it there so people wouldn’t look to the autobiographical element. I felt at this distance in time it was better to acknowledge that. The second decision was to reduce the number of characters. In the novel, there are a lot of children which are barely described, and it becomes impossible on film to have all these teeming children. So I reduced the children to six, and I also combined two of the house visitors in one character. If people think an adaptation should take every aspect of a novel and put it on screen they could find these things very shocking, and they don’t like it. I’ve felt that the film should be inspired by the novel, but more importantly, it needs to work on-screen. People need to have enough time with each of the characters to have resonance and meaning with them, and this is particularly important when holding on to the three-part structure of To the Lighthouse. I was under pressure to reduce the last section, if not lose it, but that felt to me terribly wrong. It’s important to me that the children are memorable, as we see them return after all the death and tragedy to go back there. If you’re not clear about who the people were, then it all starts to fall apart.
Q: When you look at To the Lighthouse, there doesn’t seem to be any dialogue.
In fact, there is a lot of dialogue, it’s just reported in people’s thoughts and recollections: it’s there. I could hear the voice of Mr Ramsay and Mrs Ramsay and hear Lily – not only who they were but how they would talk and what they would say. It’s to do with the tone and the period and the ways people express themselves. In film terms, the second section of To the Lighthouse is quite difficult. It’s a sort of montage of sequences, and I think the way Colin Gregg captured that in the film is wonderful, with Julian’s music. I’d written it in the script, but it’s not the conventional way that adaptations work – I wanted to keep the poetry of Woolf’s novel alive. Actually, the first decision I made was to make a conventional film with actors talking to each other. If you were a Woolf purist, you could make a film of voiceovers with actors wandering around in gardens and staring at the sea. I do use that, but very sparingly. For me, that becomes so arty and most viewers won’t have patience for it. They have to be vivid characters, arguing and talking and playing and laughing: we need that conventional drama. At the time I was new to writing. I was unconstrained by conventions because I wasn’t used to them. Fortunately, it got to somebody in the BBC who like the script and said ‘let’s make it’. That’s magic, and it probably doesn’t happen so much anymore, because everything is picked over by everyone and it’s harder to find the money. There’s a lot more scrutiny and input at every stage of the process.
Q: Is there any advice that you’d give to a budding writer?
A: What I did was just get in touch with other people and make some kind of a film. I’m sceptical of just sending scripts to people – I just think that having something done, if it’s a theatre play or if you know someone who produces or a stage somewhere, you’re doing something. Don’t get trapped in the cycle of sending and waiting – get out there.