Nick Hornby Q&A: ‘Brooklyn’ writer
“First of all, I thought the book was unbelievably moving,” says writer Nick Hornby when we asked him during our recent webcam chat about what attracted him to adapting Colm Toibin's novel “Brooklyn” for the big screen. “I didn’t know of that many films where you could make what felt like a classic love story which didn’t have any irony, and just spoke very directly. So that, as a challenge, resonated with me.”
The acclaimed novelist ("High Fidelity," "About a Boy") says he found his way into the story of an Irish immigrant in the 1950s torn between two men and two countries on a personal level. “In terms of the themes of the book, I think the way I hooked into it was growing up in a small town and wanting to get away.”
He speaks candidly about the challenges he faced in turning the 2009 bestseller into a screenplay. “Colm tends to pull away from scenes a little bit and leave some things up to the imagination of the reader, so I had to sketch in some of the gaps. I made a couple of small changes that, given the delicacy of the structure, felt like quite big decisions to make at the time. I don’t know if anybody else necessarily would notice them.”
For Hornby, the biggest challenge of the book was that “it’s based around a triangle, but the triangle is not in the middle of the book: the first guy comes in half-way through, and the second guy comes in right before the end. So easily the biggest challenge was to create the character of Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) with as much detail as you can so that he is, in the end, a viable alternative for Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), and you haven’t got very much time or movement to do that.”
He admits his personal experiences helped influence the writing tremendously. “I think that any person from the British Isles who was born sometime between 1945 and 1980 knows the power of America in the imagination. I grew up in the 1970s mostly — that was when my teenage years were — and it was really like that then, let alone in the 1950s. America was somewhere that we all wanted to go to, lots of us wanted to live there; it had the music that we wanted and the movies that we wanted but more than anything, it had a degree of physical comfort that we didn’t have in Europe. In the 1970s, there were periods where we were frequently without electricity, we all had parents and grandparents whose toilets were in the back-garden, very few of the houses had central heating. So, what worked for me, thinking about it, was that America in the 1950s was the same as America in the 1960s or 1970s: it had stuff that we didn’t have and we wanted to be apart of it.”
Of course, there is a price to be paid for leaving home, as Hornby explains. “We all move towns. Many of us in Britain and America get out of the place where we’re born because we want something more for ourselves. There is a great cost that comes with that, I think, in that we lose a part of ourselves, and we’re never the same again. You look at the world at the moment, and Europe has a migration crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II. Every single one of those people trying to escape from Syria and move through Europe on mass has one of those stories. If you think about it like that, it’s devastating. To go into this girls head and experience that wrench with her is quite timely.”
Hornby, whose most recent novel "Funny Girl" topped the bestseller list, has only written two other screenplays. He received an Oscar nomination for adapting “An Education” (2009) and a Writers Guild nomination for adapting “Wild” (2014). Will he reap another Oscar bid for his work on "Brooklyn"? Our current odds, based on the predictions of thousands of readers like you, say he will.