Novelists can be prickly about their creations but when it came to adapting his 2011 Booker prize winning novel – The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes told Ritesh Batra and his co-writer Nick Payne: “Go ahead and betray me.”
“Julian gave us his blessing. Then he saw the movie in the end and he loved it, and sent us a generous note,” says Ritesh.
The filmmaker’s other big project, Our Souls at Night, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, is also based on a novel. “Kent Haruf, who wrote the book, passed away a week after finishing it, so I didn’t even have the pleasure of meeting him,” says Ritesh.
Literary adaptations are difficult but with two of them under his belt, Ritesh is well placed to offer an insight into what makes them tick. Here’s his advice for any filmmaker planning to take on a great novel:
Don’t try to replicate the book literally
You have to stay true to the book, its soul and, at the same time, make sure that the movie is its own being. A good adaptation is a cousin of the book, not a sibling. Siblings can kill each other, but distant cousins who share the same DNA generally don’t kill each other.
You have to love a book to adapt it well
It is extremely difficult to adapt a novel into a movie. It’s not something you’d do if you are not madly in love with the novel. It’s easier in many ways to write your own thing and make a movie.
Adaptations are usually about transformation
Adaptation is generally the word we use but it is essentially a transformation. The thing about The Sense of an Ending (the novel) that everyone most remembers is its ending, because people get to the end and they want to read it again.
We had a choice while making the movie – what do we do about the ending? Simply, what we had to do is that we have to honour all the relationships, give the audience the trajectory of a relationship. In a novel, you don’t necessarily have to do that.