Nick Hornby's books have reached iconic status in modern pop-culture, articulating a peculiar kind of post-adolescent angst in the likes of Fever Pitch and High Fidelity. Both those books were turned into radically different kinds of films, an experience that served as the perfect apprenticeship for Hornby's own adaptation of Lynn Barber's coming-of-age memoir An Education, as he explained to LWLies.
LWLies: One of the things I really like about the film is that a lot of the images and iconography from that period are familiar. I like the way it seems fresh in An Education because you’re seeing it through the eyes of this young girl who is experiencing it all for the first time. I wonder how much of that you can evoke in the script and how much of that is reliant purely on the sensibility and visual awareness of the director?
Hornby: I would have to give most of the credit I think to Lone [Scherfig]. It worked really well, that you’ve got a 16-year-old outsider in the script being directed by a Danish woman who is looking at all of those images where she did fantastic amounts of work looking at books and photos. So you’ve got that sort of double outsider thing. I’d like to think that I knew a little bit of what might be interesting about the period that was outside the norm. Like all that sort of property stuff, the Rachmanism stuff.
LWLies: Was that from research or was that something you were aware of already?
Hornby: It was in Lynn’s piece. I’d heard of Rachmanism and I knew that it resulted in a change of the law for example. But also I think that particular period is under-exploited because it's right before the ’60s became the ’60s. It was much more like the ’30s or the ’40s. They kept food rationing five years before. It went way on after the war and it always struck me that our experience of the ’50s was very different to America’s experience of the ’50s. You realise how much of culture is an expression of economics to a certain extent. That all that rock 'n' roll, cars and girls thing was a country that had been made rich by the Second World War. Whereas we were ruined by the Second World War so we were waiting for buses, not driving around in Caddies and Daddy’s T-bird and all that sort of thing. That was all about to come. We were about to get richer, and so 1962 seems quite a significant time for me.
LWLies: Did Lone make many changes to the script once you’d handed it over to her or did you work closely on it beforehand?
Hornby: I did a draft with Lone and I made changes at her suggestion, yes. They tended to be smaller narrative changes.
LWLies: Nothing particularly painful; no favourite scenes that got cut or anything like that?
Hornby: There were a couple of scenes that got filmed that got cut and, yeah, they are painful.
LWLies: Do you remember specifics? I wonder if anything around Sally Hawkins character got cut because it seems such an extraordinary piece of casting to get hold of Sally Hawkins for two lines.
Hornby: It was four lines that got cut. It was fantastic for us.
LWLies: How flattering is that for you personally that all these incredible actors are grabbing at these roles you’ve written for two lines? I mean Emma Thompson can’t have more than five minutes of screen time in the whole film.
Hornby: Well, Emma was a favour. I know Emma and we asked her if she’d do it and she said yes, so that’s more about a friendship than being convinced by the script. The rest of them is incredibly flattering. Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, someone as good as Carey Mulligan and yeah I was really surprised. I was embarrassed sometimes when the producer said we’re going to ask so-and-so to do this: ‘Don’t do that! They won’t wanna do it!’ and when they did want to do it you feel, okay, they do know what they’re talking about. It’s really gratifying because we worked hard over a period of time to get the script right.
LWLies: Having gone through this process before, having your books adapted and often radically, do you think it made you more sensitive to how Lynn Barber was feeling about it? Do you think you improved your adaptation having been on the other side of it?
Hornby: I think the thing that I learned is not the liberties people take with the material, it’s much more about where it’s gone. I always understand when people want to change things and I never mind in the slightest. A film is a film and a book is a book, and the book stays in the book shops even after the film has disappeared, so none of that troubles me. What tends to trouble me is something disappearing for three years and not knowing where it’s gone and who’s doing it. So I’d say what I learned from being adapted is to try and be courteous and to make sure that Lynn is seeing drafts and she knows what’s going on. And I think she was the same about being adapted. She was sensible about it and never ever said, ‘Oh you can’t do that because that didn’t happen.’
LWLies: Does it add an extra frisson – knowing you’re adapting the work of somebody who has access to a very public platform if she doesn't like it?
Hornby: Well, it was a high risk strategy!
LWLies: Did you have any particular fears about the fact that her original was only 10-12 pages of story? Any particular fears in ways that you might tread on her feet because obviously you have to pull this out into a 90-100-page screenplay?
Hornby: I think all you can do really is show people drafts and if there’s something that makes them go nuts you take it out. That never happened, and also, you know, it starts to become fictional. Immediately her name is changed and the moment you make somebody do something that they haven’t done in real life then that journey is slightly different. I think the first time Lynn saw it she didn’t feel that it had anything to do with her at all because I think all you notice are the differences and not the similarities, and then of course she will be very strongly identified with it. I think most people who read the piece and see the film will see that they’re very close indeed. I think if she’d strongly objected to something we would have absolutely done something about it but she was great about being adapted.
LWLies: You were born in ’57 so you would have been around five at this period. Is there much of your own experiences in that script alongside Lynn’s; much of yourself really in Jenny – gender differences allowing?
Hornby: I started to think actually that after a while I was re-writing Fever Pitch in a weird sort of way. Of course everyone thinks Fever Pitch is just about football, which it partly is, but it’s also about the suburban kid’s relationship with the city. How you get in there and what short-cuts you can take. That fear that life will pass you by and you’ll be forever living on the margins. I strongly identify with that. I think it’s actually one of the key post-war stories because it applies to so many areas of culture. If you think of the Rolling Stones and their relationship with Chicago blues, the Beatles and their relationship with Elvis. It’s all these outsiders living relatively quiet suburban lives who want to grab something, and so that story is quite important to me and I think it’s important to the history of popular culture.
LWLies: One of the things that struck me about David was that he almost seemed like a character that could have come from one of your novels. Although less sympathetic, here is a slightly older guy totally struggling with the immature aspect of his own character. Not quite ready to accept his own family. Not quite ready to settle down. Do you see these parallels to your own characters?
Hornby: No, because I think with him the stakes are pretty high. He’s involved in semi-criminal activity, he does have a family. In some ways he seems incredibly grown up when grown up means it’s all gone wrong for him. The kind of man who is prepared to leave his family behind and see young girls. I don’t think any of my characters have done that. I think his activity and his behaviour is much more morally reprehensible.
LWLies: You would never write a scene with him driving off in the car at the end I suppose...
Hornby: I just did! Yes, it felt brutal but it felt right for him.
LWLies: With Olivia Williams' and Rosamond Pike’s characters, at first viewing each of them are different archetypes. On the second viewing there’s a lot more going on in their relationships with her, much of which is in the looks they give in unspoken things and I wondered from a writer's point of view how hard it is to resist the temptation to verbalise everything? Just trusting that when it comes onto film that the subtleties and the nuances are going to be teased out of it?
Hornby: It’s hard for me not to verbalise and it’s something everybody was good at doing, cutting back for me. I think you just cannot anticipate if you have a good cast how much more complex and sophisticated something is going to feel. You know, Olivia, I hoped that there might be a heart of the film located in that relationship and of course she’s pivotal in terms of teaching Jenny that there’s a third way as it were; that education for its own sake, relation and culture for its own sake can be a liberating thing. What Olivia brings to it is heartbreaking in a few of the scenes. I don’t think you can legislate for that kind of affect that a good actress can have. The moment we had the read-through I thought, 'Okay, this is the next proper layer and it’s going to be a good one. It is going to be enriching.'
LWLies: The most difficult scenes to watch are where Jenny confronts the headmistress and she says, ‘Listen you have to give me an answer to this question I have, you have to tell me what the point is,’ and I suppose, as you’re saying, eventually she finds that answer. But it’s also left open ended. You feel Jenny’s pain because you think we do need to find an answer for these girls and we know looking back with hindsight that they will find their own answers and then eventually these two generations are going to come into conflict over the answers they find. You’ve been a teacher yourself and I wonder how would you answer that question if somebody came to you and said, ‘What is the point in all this hard work?’
Hornby: I’d say that the point is to get to college, have as much fun as you possibly can. Have as much fun with stuff. Learn who you are. Go to college, skip lectures, watch films, read books, listen to music and start to feel more alive than you had done at school. That to me is the great incentive of it.