Nick Hornby’s international reputation rests on his best-selling novels that often become movies: “About a Boy,” “High Fidelity,” “A Long Way Down.”
But increasingly the 58-year-old Brit has expanded his repertoire to screenwriting, adapting other writers’ work. Last year his screenplay based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” propelled Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern to Oscar nominations. In 2011, he himself was nominated for his adapted screenplay for “An Education.”
His latest, the excellent “Brooklyn,” which opened in Kansas City on Wednesday, follows a young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates to 1950s New York and finds herself caught between two worlds.
A wisp of a movie packing a boatload of emotion, “Brooklyn” is an intimate epic that embraces the larger immigrant experience. In Ronan, it has a quietly luminous leading lady who moves from shyness to bracing self-assurance. She was nominated for an Oscar for 2007’s “Atonement,” and another Oscar nomination seems all but assured for “Brooklyn.”
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The accolades are sweet music to Hornby, who with his wife, producer Amanda Posey, got the ball rolling several years ago when they bought the screen rights to Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel.
“When I started on this project it was just my wife and me,” Hornby said in a recent telephone conversation from Los Angeles. “When I wrote the first draft Saoirse was only 16 and couldn’t have played the part. Had we gotten the money right away we couldn’t have used her. She was too young. And that would have been a tragedy.”
Do not think, however, that Hornby has gone Hollywood.
“These indie movies that I’ve been writing — I do them in London and work mostly with other British people. I had my Hollywood experience with ‘Wild,’ but happily that was made with an indie spirit. So I haven’t had to deal with studios and executives and all that.”
Of course, there’s the delicate dance between the screenwriter and the novelist. For dramatic purposes the former must jettison parts of the book and invent new scenes. The latter may complain bitterly about how his work is being compromised.
But Hornby’s relationship with Toibin was copacetic, he reports.
“There was some pressure just because Colm is a great writer and this is a beloved book. But he was a screenwriter’s dream. We met for a couple of teas after I’d finished the second draft, and he told me that in America nobody talks about ‘rashers of bacon.’ It should be just ‘bacon.’ That was the sort of advice he gave. Nothing at all about structure.
“Still, adapting ‘Brooklyn’ was a delicate operation. Any changes I made from the book were very carefully calibrated. It was like making a ship in a bottle — ‘Brooklyn’ is a small-scale story about big things: changing your life, growing up, falling in love.”
Some people maintain that a drama has to have a bad guy. Hornby disagrees.
“Well, I haven’t got any baddies in my life, and yet life still can be difficult and painful. This is a film about loss and homesickness, and while our heroine is Irish, this story isn’t particular to Ireland. For people from many countries the allure of America was that it was this incredible place we could only dream about. So despite the small scale, this is a universal story.”
Hornby said that as much as he might want to take credit for the film’s success, he must bow down before Ronan, who was only 20 when she made the film and turned 21 just this year.
“Those eyes. That face. Our director, John Crowley, says she could have been a silent movie star. Of course, that would render me more or less redundant, but what she does with facial expressions. …
“That’s the really gratifying thing about writing for the screen. A great actor can bring things to the work you didn’t realize were there. But there they are.”
Hornby’s latest project is a TV miniseries, “Love, Nina,” starring Helena Bonham Carter.
And of course he continues to write novels.
“Here’s the thing about making small, independent films. There’s not much money at this end, but the satisfaction is terrific.”
Read more of freelance writer Robert W. Butler’s interviews and reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Know your Irish
Here’s how to pronounce some of the names associated with “Brooklyn”:
▪ It’s based on the novel by Colm Toibin: “CULL-um Toe-BEAN.”
▪ Its star is Saoirse Ronan: “SEER-sha.”
▪ She plays Eilis: “AY-lish,” rhymes with “day wish.”
▪ Her suitor back in Ireland is played by Domhnall Gleeson: “DOH-nel,” rhymes with “tonal.” Now you can properly talk about him when he co-stars in December’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
Sharon Hoffmann, firstname.lastname@example.org