‘One Day’ writer David Nicholls pulls double duty with film work
Novelist David Nicholls’ love story “One Day” begins when two recent college graduates spend an unlikely evening together, then charts their relationship over the next two decades by checking in on the pair once annually, on the same mid-July day.
The book, which has topped bestseller lists in the United States and in Nicholls’ native England, won praise for its unusual literary device, but when it came time for the author to adapt the story into a feature film, the slow build of the episodic narrative presented a challenge.
“Twenty years in 100 minutes is a really tight fit,” Nicholls said. “I was eager to write the first draft, but philosophical about the possibility of being sacked.”
Rather than being fired, though, Nicholls carries the sole credit for the screenplay for Focus Features’ “One Day,” which opens Friday with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in the lead roles. The experience has put the 44-year-old Brit into a rather exclusive club of writers who have translated their own novels for the screen.
Given how frequently Hollywood looks to the bestseller lists for movies, it’s still rare for authors to pen the scripts based on their own books. Conventional industry wisdom held that novelists could never maintain sufficient critical distance to effectively judge what version of the source material might work best on screen — not to mention that reshaping almost any literary endeavor to follow the rigid three-act structure of a script is never easy, even for veteran screenwriters.
But some recent projects demonstrate that the movie business is becoming more welcoming to author adaptations. Among those who have tackled their own novel-to-screen translations in recent years are Tom Perrotta (whose script for “Little Children” with Todd Field earned an Oscar nomination in 2007) and Seth Grahame-Smith (whose “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was shot this summer and will be released in June).
The success of the “Harry Potter” films has helped persuade studios to invite more authors into the adaptation process. Although J.K. Rowling didn’t adapt her bestsellers for Warner Bros.’ franchise — that task fell mainly to Steve Kloves — her presence loomed large over the production of all eight films about the boy wizard. Kloves has said the two communicated closely, with Rowling dropping hints about what plot elements had particular relevance in the books she was still penning.
Her involvement ensured that the films captured her specific vision of the wizarding world — and assured fans that the movies were faithful to the tales they loved.
“I think you can’t underestimate the ‘J.K. Rowling’ of it all, the fact that the most successful book adaptation of all time was shepherded by the originator,” said “One Day” producer Nina Jacobson.
Jacobson made similar collaborative arrangements for the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies, based on Jeff Kinney’s young adult books, and for the adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” series, the first film of which is in production in North Carolina.
The producers of the “Twilight” films, which were adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s vampire romance novels, also employed a Rowling-like model, with Meyer routinely visiting the sets and collaborating with Melissa Rosenberg, who penned the scripts for all five movies in the series, the next of which, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1" is due in November.
“We’re very tight and very much in each other’s world,” Rosenberg told The Times in 2009 when asked about her relationship with Meyer.
For authors who do tackle their own adaptations, the experience can be jolting — and invigorating.
“Writing a novel and writing a screenplay have nothing to do with each other, other than the spelling of the words,” said Grahame-Smith, 35. “The first thing you find out is where all the fat is because it’s gone. Instantly. The second thing you find out is that you need to tell the story in three acts. … You also have two hours to tell a story and a lot of that two hours is devoted to visuals and not a lot of it is devoted to dialogue.”
Grahame-Smith might have been more prepared than most: He studied film at Boston’s Emerson College before moving to L.A. to become a screenwriter. The success of his 2009 debut novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” helped him make the leap from writing for television to scripting studio features — he’s written the script for Tim Burton’s upcoming “Dark Shadows” and is planning to adapt his next novel, “We Three Kings,” a revisionist take on the story of the three wise men of the nativity, which is due out in April.
Likewise, Nicholls had written TV episodes and a film screenplay before tackling the job of adapting his own prose. He adapted his first novel, “Starter for Ten,” into the 2006 film of the same name, but working on the script for “One Day,” he said, was particularly rewarding.
“Watching the finished movie, I’m satisfied that we’ve made the most faithful version in the time allowed, but also a version that makes sense to people who’ve not read the novel,” Nicholls said. “A movie can never be a book read aloud, and an absolutely faithful version would be deathly — hours long, repetitive, dull. “
Jacobson said she believes novelists are uniquely positioned to adapt their own work — the right writer can bring sophistication and nuance to the interactions between characters he or she creates, layering in rich, meaningful back story. She optioned “One Day” in 2008 and chose Nicholls to adapt based on her affinity for his voice, and his previous movie and TV credits.
“I loved his sensibility, I loved his insight into the characters,” Jacobson said. “Everything that’s special about the book is David Nicholls. There was never even a question for me. The dialogue was fantastic, the detail was so vivid. And yes, he’s already a seasoned screenwriter.”
What’s arguably more important than experience, though, is an author’s willingness to stray from the source material, an ability to jettison plot points or characters that aren’t working in the screenplay.
“You really do need to check your ego at the door when you’re adapting your own work,” Grahame-Smith said. “I thought that I had that under control. I went into it knowing, ‘OK, this thing is going to have to get ripped down to the rafters and you can’t be precious about anything.’ But that only works until you really cringe and disagree with something and then it puts that attitude to the test in a hurry.”
“If somebody views their work as holy scripture, then you are in trouble,” added Albert Berger, who produced “Little Children” and is adapting another Perrotta novel.
Indeed, not everyone from the literary world endorses the idea of writers undertaking such endeavors.
“It’s a terrible idea for a novelist to adapt their own work,” said Ira Silverberg, a New York-based literary agent whose client roster includes Sam Lipsyte (“The Ask”), who is developing an original comedy, “People City,” for HBO. “The formal challenges are almost as great as the inevitable feeling of disappointment the writer will feel once a producer or director gets near it.... Writers of fiction should be writing books not screenplays — that’s what screenwriters are for.”
For Nicholls, however, writing both novels and screenplays satisfies two very different creative impulses. And toggling between the two, he said, helps keep his tortured-writer tendencies at bay.
“When I’m on set and it’s 2 in the morning and it’s raining and I don’t really know what I’m doing there or I’m in a script meeting and it’s gone on for three hours and we’re cutting stuff, I have a vision in my head, of my wooden desk and a view and plain white paper and a fountain pen — Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I was by myself writing a novel?” he said.
“And then when I’ve been sitting at that desk for about two hours I think, ‘God I would love to talk to someone or watch a casting tape or go to an edit and actually collaborate.’”
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