Bestseller gets smart on screen
January 21, 2009
Being an author isn’t the same as knowing an author, insists one of the characters in the Sundance competition drama "An Education," about a teenage girl being seduced by a much older man. Knowing an author means prestige and connections.
But what about being an author?
That’s a question best left for Nick Hornby. Hornby penned the books "High Fidelity," "About a Boy" and "Fever Pitch," all adapted into mainstream hits, and based his screenplay for "An Education" on a 10-page essay from an English journalist. As a bestselling author and, now, a screenwriter willing to ply the work of others, it’s fair to say that he knows the difference between writing and adapting, being an author and knowing one, even if his understanding remains unspoken.
The coming-of-age story in "An Education" takes place in Britain in the early 1960’s, at the beginning of an era of social and political reform. Hornby recited lines from Philip Larkin’s poem "Annus Mirabilis" to explain the story’s milieu. "Sexual intercourse began in 1963," he said. "Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP."
Life gets complicated for Jenny, a sharp schoolgirl, when she meets a charismatic older man. Jenny’s suitor, a 30-something art swindler, introduces the girl to the urbane world of art and classical music, but he also upends her life by drawing her away from school and family. "An Education" stars Peter Sarsgaard as the older man, David, and Carey Mulligan as Jenny. (Mulligan can also be seen in another Sundance film, "The Greatest," starring Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan.)
The film, alternately dark and funny, gives Hornby the chance to meditate on adulthood, growing up and learning from mistakes. Lynn Barber’s original essay contains no dialogue or scenes, but it does provide the narrative backbone of the film.
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"I like to choose something short and set parameters," Hornby said. "It seemed rich to me. It had the potential for comedy as well as to affect people emotionally. Most scripts are straight comedies or straight dramas. This seemed to have that switch in tone."
Filmmakers have famously altered Hornby’s material for the screen. They moved "High Fidelity" from London to Chicago, and changed "Fever Pitch" from a movie about a man, played by Colin Firth, obsessed with soccer, to a romantic comedy starring Jimmy Fallon as a crazed Red Sox fan.
Hornby remains philosophical about creative license, even when it is used as a license to reconfigure his own work. "I love the adaptations of my books," he said Monday as he puffed on a cigarette. He especially liked "High Fidelity," a comedy about a record-store owner sorting through his sordid affairs with women. "Movies have to be something different. People asked me if I was upset that they based [the film] ‘High Fidelity’ in Chicago, and the answer is no. If John Cusack wants to set it in Chicago, I say, ‘God yeah.’"
Hornby said his technique for adapting "An Education" without the pitfalls of romanticizing the 1960s or exploiting innocence for dramatic effect was to focus on character development. Vintage cars, costumes and scenes of Paris bejewel the film from its onset, but the performances of Mulligan and Sarsgaard remain squarely in the foreground of the action. "It’s got to be about the people," Hornby explained. "It’s got to be about Jenny and that guy. The time period sort of fits at the edges of that."
The material is a deliberate departure in subject matter for Hornby, whose passion for music and sports fuels many of his novels. "I wasn’t going to write books about guys who can’t grow up for the rest of my life," he said. "That’s a pretty small patch to till."
Just the facts
What: A film from the writer of "High Fidelity"
When: Thursday Jan. 22, at 8:30 p.m. at Prospector Square Theatre and Saturday, Jan. 24, at 9 a.m. at the Egyptian Theatre