- 05 Nov 15
Proving the ‘lad lit’ tags were way off, Nick Hornby has helped bring another complex female character to life with Brooklyn, a big screen adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel.
A big week for Nick Hornby. Forget the fact he’s off down the red carpet for the Irish premiere of Brooklyn once he’s done chatting in The Westbury. On Tuesday, his beloved Arsenal beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in the Champions League. Before Fever Pitch, an ode to his football obsession and relationship with his father, made him a household name, an adrift Hornby would open his therapy sessions by expressing his mood in the form of whether the Gunners had won or lost. Do their results still have the same mental impact today? Would talking about his (wonderful) big screen adaptation of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and hanging out with Saoirse Ronan be an utter drag if Wenger had got his tactics wrong?
“In an entirely different way,” says the 58 year-old writer, “in that my two younger sons, 12 and 11, are obsessives. The mood in the house is terrible if there is a defeat. So I find myself saying all those horrible things...”
It’s only a game?
“‘It’s only a game’, and ‘they’re still in with a chance.’ They’d never seen us win anything.”
Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey (Ronan), a young Enniscorthy girl in ‘50s Ireland who heads to America for a better life. She finds one, but family concerns calls her home, Domhnall Gleeson’s Jim Farrell turns up and things get complicated. What drew Hornby to the source material?The simplicity of the structure,” he says. “The authenticity of the choice. That choice is so complicated but so simple. It’s dream material in that way. I always talk about Of Mice And Men being the most perfectly accessible book because everyone understands that book but no one can solve those characters’ problems, however clever you are. And Brooklyn to me seems to have that same quality. It’s inclusive in that you are absorbed in this story, you want to read it, you’re not put off by language. There’s nothing oblique about it. But when Eilis comes back to Dublin and starts up with Jim, you simply don’t know what you want for her and that seems to be a marvelous opportunity for film.”
Hornby has noted, from his own experience, how wise Toibin was to take a hands-off approach. The “complete approval” he hears other novelists talk about is virtually impossible, unless they’re going as far as selecting the entire cast, the editor, the director of photography...
“It’s beyond your own competence,” he nods. “Colm came to the conclusion that I have come to, which is that if you trust the hands-on producers and you’re sure they want to make the film of your book that you want to see, then you have to trust the process from there on.”
Much has been made of the fact that Hornby’s three most recent films have focused on female characters. Part of the journalistic narrative has been his apparent transition from “lad lit” – though it’s worth pointing out that as far back as a 1997 interview with this publication, he was expressing bewilderment at his inclusion in that genre. Really, it’s so noteworthy because of how rare these well-rounded roles still are for women. An Education, the 2009 film that earned Carey Mulligan a BAFTA gong and an Oscar nomination, was an eye-opener for Nick. When Mulligan told him how much the part meant to her, a light bulb went off.“
People seem desperate for it. Not just the actresses but the culture. The fuss that was made of Carey when that happened. So people are properly interested. The one problem seems to be with things like The Academy in America. You’ve got 75-year-old guys who are the majority of voters. And they would much rather watch American Sniper. I seem to have been taking more of an interest in it the last several years because of the work I’ve been doing. But I guess this thing about being a ‘girlfriend’ or a ‘wife’ or a ‘friend’ has been true of cinema for quite some time.”
Apart from finding the stories of young women more dramatic, due to the obstacles they have to face that young men do not, Hornby enjoys how readily actresses embrace the material.
“If you write a really great part for a woman, they’re just kind of roaring to get hold of it. With Saoirse, there was no way you were going to take this script away from her. The same was true with Carey and Reese [Witherspoon] bought Wild for herself, because she was fed up with the sorts of things she’d been given. So I get to work with the best talent in the world, in the best roles of their lives. And that’s a mighty powerful incentive to write things for women.”
For Hornby, it always comes back to the characters, whatever their gender. Even his minor players have their own complexities.
“There’s a brilliant mutuality of need in independent film, which is that the better the minor characters are, the better the chance you have of getting a cast for them. Give them something to do! And then, when you give them something to do, you’ll get Julie Walters. She’s fantastic [in Brooklyn] but that part could have been completely functional. If you can find a way of getting it to spark, then you’re off and running.”
Not a lover of prose for prose’s sake, Hornby is essentially trying to make an emotional connection with people. His greatest gift might be his empathy.
“I think it seems to be,” he ventures cautiously. “When it works, there is a soul to the work that seems to mean something to people. When you can feel that, they’re the works of art that mean the most to me.”
Next on the cards is a Jason Reitman project, and something completely leftfield.
"This guy called Chris Milk, he makes virtual reality stuff. He got on to me saying they’re going to write a movie and would I write the script. What they can do is unbelievable. He’s got this company called Verse, he’s just done a new U2 video. This will be a really big deal, the VR thing. You just are in a different world.”
In a previous life, Hornby has admitted he made a fairly rubbish English teacher. Now that he’s found his true calling, has he found a lesson worth sharing?
“Commitment,” he concludes. “Looking back in retrospect, I came close to chucking things in loads of times. I came close to packing this in. It was six years. I thought: ‘It’s time for someone else to take over.’ It was breaking my heart that it wasn’t getting funded. It’s that; it’s just keeping yourself up, and being persistent. Doing the work every day.”
Brooklyn is in cinemas now.