You probably know British writer Ian McEwan best for his award-winning novels like Atonement, Black Dogs and The Comfort of Strangers. But he also writes plays and screenplays, and his novella On Chesil Beach has now been adapted for the screen by none other than McEwan himself. Dialing in from England, we chatted about the film, and the differences between writing a novel and a screenplay.
On Chesil Beach tells the story of a young couple, Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), who are engaged to be married. Set in 1962, when the birth control pill had just reached England but before the sexual revolution had begun, Florence and Edward try to navigate the sexual repression that was standard in society. Perhaps because they are innocents, or perhaps because society has failed them, each is filled with self-delusions of what marriage actually means, leading to a disastrous wedding night.
Some years ago (the novella was published in 2007), McEwan had the idea to follow the courtship and wedding of a sexually innocent young couple to explore what would happen when they were actually alone together.
“I wondered,” says McEwan, “how much emotional truth they’d be able to confront and what would happen if they failed. It seemed like a self-contained, small arena to examine how difficult it is to be emotionally truthful; a way of exploring certain social themes, certain class themes – a certain historical sense. I chose 1962 because the 60s hadn’t really started. This was a hinge moment.”
Florence and Edward come from very different backgrounds and the film flashes back to moments in each character’s past to show how their experiences not only shaped them, but how they ended up having one hellish wedding night.
“Edward thinks his wedding night has to be an explosive moment and of course, disappointment is almost certain to follow with such heavy expectations.”
I don’t want to give the details of what happens away; the mystery is part of the power of the film. But McEwan says, “There are times when – in a single moment – you can make a decision that completely changes your life. And in this case ruins your life.”
Though the events are fictional, McEwan does see a bit of himself in Edward.
“North Oxford was the place my first real love lived and I came as a rather innocent young man to a very sophisticated, book-filled home. Her father was not only a clergyman, but a teacher at Oxford University. I came from a rather bookless home, so I shared something with Edward in that.”
Though McEwan has been writing screenplays since the 1970s, he usually prefers to let someone else adapt his work. Not this time.
“I didn’t want anyone else to touch this. The story is delicate, tender, intimate. I could see a thousand ways in which it could get ruined. So I was determined to do it myself.”
He adds that he finds adapting a shorter story, like his novella, very attractive. “You don’t have to leave a great deal out. I think screenplays and novellas have a lot in common like building up character very rapidly.”
But he says there were some challenges. “There’s no real dialogue in the novel until they get onto the beach and have that crucial scene. So a good part of the screenplay was pure inventing. I also came up with a few scenes that I would have included in the novel if I had thought of them at the time, so kind of active discovery, too.
He says the biggest difference in writing a screenplay verses a novel is that, “You’re not in charge in a screenplay. Outside of television, film remains a directors form and many other people too are going to intervene. A screenplay is not a finished literary artifact. It’s really like a recipe, not the meal itself, so already you know that you’re not playing God the way you would be in a novel, which is a finished product. Very few people want to sit around reading screenplays. It’s a sort of demotion, but a happy demotion because it’s a pleasure for novelists who spend so much time alone to collaborate with a lot of skillful people. You accept the demotion in exchange for all these new experiences.”
I ask him if he enjoys playing God, and he say, “Yes, who doesn’t? I think even God enjoys it.”
McEwan’s advice to novelists who want to write screenplays is not to wait for an invitation. “If you really want to do it, just go ahead and do it on your own. Choose a literary work that you love and try yourself out turning it into a screenplay. Don’t wait for all the structures and studios and $50 million to be in place. If you’re really set on doing it, you must show your seriousness by abandoning yourself to a completely hopeless project.”
On Chesil Beach opens in theaters May 18.