A novel approach to an unfolding 'Scandal'

Times Staff Writer

ZOE HELLER sold the film rights to her acclaimed novel "What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal" with a simple promise to herself:

"I made up my mind very early that if you sell the rights to someone, you're handing it over to someone to do with it what they will. It's a losing proposition to kind of remain proprietorial," she said.

Which is not to say that she wasn't hopeful. She had known of Patrick Marber, the screenwriter hired to translate her Booker Prize finalist novel for the screen, ever since they overlapped at Oxford University in the early 1980s.

Since then, Marber had emerged as a successful playwright. In 2004, he turned his own work, "Closer," into a screenplay that went on to garner Academy Award nominations for supporting actors Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. And Heller was excited to see what he would make of her words.

"I didn't expect or even want a kind of slavish loyalty to every plot point," she said, sitting alongside Marber recently on a balcony of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons.

For Marber, who said he finds creating characters and plotlines "the most difficult part of the job," working with existing material was "a thrill." But one that posed significant challenges.

The novel is written from the perspective of Barbara Covett, a lonely, aging schoolteacher, who chronicles the affair her posh, younger and married colleague, Sheba Hart, has with a 15-year-old student at their rough North London high school. When Barbara learns of the affair, she uses it to draw Sheba close to her.

Marber said he loved the story but was concerned about its prospects as a film. "I thought it was near to impossible. I thought, 'Why would anyone do this?' " he said. "Because it's told in the first person and it's set in London in school and in people's houses. It seemed very un-cinematic."

Marber said it was his close collaboration with producer Scott Rudin -- the pair worked on "Closer" -- that convinced him the effort was worth it.

"His view of it was that Barbara was a great movie character, that to have someone with this much energy and this many problems and this much wit and to possibly have Judi Dench playing that automatically gave it movie potential."

One of his first hurdles was deciding the film needed narration in the form of a voice-over from Barbara. Without that device, Marber said he thought much of the novel's incisiveness would be lost.

Still, Marber, whose efforts have garnered a Golden Globe nomination for best screenplay, said it took "a year of thinking, 10 weeks of writing" to create the first draft.

"But the year of thinking is work, I hasten to add," he said.

Heller said she was intrigued to see how he would handle the first-person nature of the material. "I was very glad I didn't have to cope with that challenge," said Heller, who was never approached about writing the screenplay and, in any case, would have turned it down. "I have no instinct for it," she said, "and I was already working on another novel."

Marber knew early on that the film would feel "way too claustrophobic" if told entirely from one viewpoint.

His second challenge was making Sheba come alive as a character. "That was a complicated problem that took a few drafts to figure out."

In spring 2005, almost two years after they first met to talk about the story, Heller received a copy of the script.

Heller, the daughter of screenwriter Lukas Heller ("Dirty Dozen," "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"), said she pored over every word.

"I'm much less interested in plot than I am in sentences," she explained. "So the way it became a driving narrative was impressive to me."

At the same time, Heller said she felt the draft veered from her book in some key respects. "If I had a concern, it was [that the draft was] slightly more pro-family," she said. "There was a kind of moralism there. I don't think that's actually how the film has turned out."

Still, in the screenplay that was filmed, Heller called Marber's take on Sheba's family life a "much more generous one." In the novel, Heller said she saw Sheba's much older husband as "a creep."

Marber said it was a conscious storytelling decision on his part. "I wanted it to be more morally difficult for her to go have an affair with a kid," he said. "I wanted to make it more problematic."

Marber himself defines his screenplay as "superficially faithful. If you were a student of the screenplay and the novel, you'd have sheer delight at excavating all the differences and similarities and the peculiar relationships of one to another."

One significant change was to the ending, something Heller expresses unease with even now.

"I took some persuading," she said. "My novel has a pretty grim ending and -- in the beginning at least -- I balked at the idea of the movie's ending being less grim. I didn't like the idea of Sheba discovering that the bluebird of happiness was at home all along."

Marber interrupted in mock exasperation to argue that the fate he ultimately gives Sheba (which we won't reveal here) is far worse than Heller's.

Both novelist and screenwriter acknowledge that Barbara's longing for Sheba seems far more sexual on screen.

"In the book it's a much more submerged note," Heller said. "She certainly doesn't identify herself as a lesbian....I remember Patrick sort of pressing me about this in one of our early conversations. He said: 'What does she anticipate happening if she had her dreams come true? What would her relationship be with Sheba?' And I said, 'Well, you know, I suppose maybe she'd scrub her back in the bath occasionally, but she doesn't have a vision of rolling around in bed together.' "

Marber said he believed that he carried that sentiment through the screenplay, right down to Barbara's line straight from the novel, that someone like Sheba had no clue what it was like to be "chronically untouched."

But Marber conceded that Barbara's desire to be close to Sheba seems much more sexual on film, even predatory, despite his presentation of her thinking via the voice-over.

"She has a speech where she maps out her vision: 'In a different, better age we would be ladies of leisure ... we would be companions.' "

At the same time, he saw Barbara's actions as more clearly calculated than the story's author.

"Absolutely the action of the story I inherited is the spider and the fly, but the novel conceals it. The key piece of action in the whole story is Barbara's decision.... [to turn] Sheba's secret into her opportunity."

Heller, however, saw Barbara's motivation differently. "In the book I don't think she has a self-conscious aim of entrapping Sheba," she said. "In the film she says things like, 'Now I got her!' "

In the end, Heller said, watching Marber's interpretation of her story was fascinating. "In many ways the similarities were kind of astonishing, and there were many dissimilarities," she said.

She first saw it screened in October, surrounded by Fox Searchlight executives. "I was very aware of being observed and sat there with a sort of rector's grin: 'I love it! I love it!' " she said, "But I liked it very much. I really did."

megan.garvey@latimes.com

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