Tony and Susan to Nocturnal Animals

4th November 2016

Emma Hare from The Bookseller on translating the book to film:

Translating is a dangerous business. I’ve always remembered a newspaper article by Julian Barnes where he explained how a fairly negligible sentence in Madame Bovary could be translated fifteen different ways, each subtly – or not so subtly – changing the meaning. I’ve been haunted by that article for years. I’d think, what are we losing when we read War and Peace in English? That one sent me on a never-ending quest to learn Russian. To widen the net further, why does a play move us sometimes in ways that a film can’t? And vice versa?

And in the case of Nocturnal Animals, I found myself asking another big question- what does a book lose in translation on its way to the screen?

I read Tony & Susan – now Nocturnal Animals, re-titled for the film release – at breakneck speed. In fact, I finished in just a few sittings (much like Susan herself with Tony’s book).  It’s a gripping, double-layered tale of revenge, told at pace, and through different prisms. I absolutely loved it.

As well as a gripping thriller, I found it to be a story about one’s past, and how we interact with each other; the damage we are able to cause and the effect we have on those close to us. ‘A man is only as good as what he loves’, said Saul Bellow (an early devotee of the book). And so, the question is posited, what happens when the things he loves have gone?

The film has been received with high praise – a ‘deliciously toxic tale of revenge’ said Peter Bradshaw, gleefully, and I’m completely with him. What Tom Ford has done with Nocturnal Animals is to transpose, and re-construct, without changing the brilliance of the story itself. It’s a beautiful film with a wonderful colour palate, but more importantly he respects his source material, bringing out all the subtleties – for me, specifically, that the psychological revenge exacted in the outer narrative is in a sense mirrored, and played out, to shocking effect, in the inner.

He also does something I find even more interesting – he draws himself into the narrative. No spoilers, but look out for the scene with Michael Sheen and Amy Adams, and indeed, Amy Adams’ character as a whole. This is what Austin Wright invited us to do with his book, after all.

I once wrote on this subject in my university entrance exam and concluded that ‘in the end, the pen is mightier than the film camera’. I would say that for me, the film lacks the deliberate restraint, and ambiguity, that the book has in spades. Delicacy is difficult on screen – like film make-up, things always have to be applied a little more thickly. But perhaps it’s time to revisit this phrase. Maybe things don’t always get lost in translation, but that you learn to speak the language of the original and translate it through the weight of your own experience into another kind of art.

Perhaps, it’s not the pen, or the film camera – it’s who is behind the instrument.

Don’t believe me? Read the book, see the film (always in that order), and watch the genius of two different crafts unfold.

by Emma Hare, The Bookseller