By Alan Taylor
Story Machines: Movies
SET a novel in Oxford and inevitably it draws comparisons with Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or Morse.
Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons has been touted as an updating of Waugh’s hedonistic classic which has encouraged generations of students to flock there, teddy bears tucked under their arms, in the hope of replicating the experiences of Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder.
On a fatuous level, then, Alderman’s novel may be linked to Waugh’s. On a more meaningful one, however, it was soon apparent that the comparison was glib. Alexander read three passages. The last one, involving her Flyte and Ryder, offered a choice between bacon butties or gay sex. Call me a prude but it was a no brainer.
As an alumna of Oxford, Alderman had a firsthand opportunity to gather material. Many of her fellow students, she said, were stinking rich, privileged and screwed up, as coincidentally were Waugh’s. There, alas, the parallels stopped.
Producing what she described as page turners that are “a bit literary”, she also admitted to writing computer games which she said those under twenty are more interested in playing than watching television or going to the cinema or, indeed, reading books. Suddenly I had a uncontrollable urge to re-read Pride and Prejudice.
Charlie Fletcher, Don Boyd and William Nicholson, all of whom in their time have made obscene amounts of money in the movie business and have since written novels, which makes them happy if not their bank managers, provided feisty entertainment in a session which pitted the one form against the other.
With Fletcher, as chair, caught in the crossfire, Boyd and Nicholson vied to prove whether a movie could do what a novel can do, which is tell us what’s going in a character’s head. Boyd suggested immersion in the movies of Ingmar Bergman, which not everyone in the audience received rapturously.
Nicholson, meanwhile, challenged him to name a Hollywood film that could compare with War and Peace.
What all three agreed on is that when a writer goes to Hollywood he must sell part if not all of his soul. The compensation was the pay, which was handsome and which, said Fletcher, had to be because of the aggro and interference you have to cope with. A writer, he added, is not welcome on the set of a movie lest their screams of horror at what’s been done to their script find their way on to the soundtrack.
John Lister-Kaye, the nature writer and founder of the Aigas Field Centre in Inverness-shire, was gloomy about the way human beings treat what goes for wilderness these days. By turns evangelical, syrupy, hard-headed and lyrical, he offered a patrician view of the world beyond the asphalt jungle. He was at his best when describing animals and birds, as he does very well in his most recent book, At the Water’s Edge. As a propagandist,however, he sounded suspiciously, if perhaps justifiably, misanthropic.