When David Nicholls’ novel Starter for 10
was first sent to me three years ago, I hurriedly read the first
page then, alarmed, immediately closed it and buried it out of sight
on a shelf in my bedroom. I did this not because I’d received
the book unbound and faintly photocopied and certainly not because I
didn’t want to read it. In fact, it took all my powers of restraint
to stop myself from enjoying it in one greedy go. But after a single
page, and with great effort, I stopped reading. My reason for this strange
and pleasure-denying behaviour was simple: self-preservation.
I had been a fellow student with David at Bristol University in the
late ’80s and I’d subsequently had a very happy time working
with him when I directed his first television film. Furthermore, I’d
been told his novel was a campus-based coming-of-age comedy set in the
1980s and, knowing his screenwriting, it was certain to be very funny,
insightful and moving. After reading the first page I realised two things:
firstly, that I desperately wanted to make the novel into a film but,
secondly, that the odds of me being the director chosen to undertake
this task were more than remote. When I heard that Tom Hanks had optioned
Starter for 10 I knew my decision not to read it was the right
one. Surely the project would be whisked off to Hollywood and into the
hands of an established movie director. I wished David all the luck
in the world but I knew I was right to spare myself the torment of having
the book in my head and then watching another director’s version
of it on the big screen. I was going to have to find something else
to make as my first feature film—but what?
Finding novels, biographies, short stories or magazine articles to turn
into movies is an all-consuming activity engaged in by virtually everyone
who works or wants to work in the film business. It’s the primary
function for legions of dedicated individuals in studio development
departments, production companies and talent agencies. There seems to
be no escape from the pressure to process material.
The film business is haunted by stories of the “unfilmable”
book or screenplay that lay around for years, but was eventually picked
up by a filmmaker who saw something in it and went on to make an Oscar-winning
smash hit from the same piece of “material” that so many
talented others had passed on. The lesson is that there are no shortcuts.
You can’t rely on someone else to do the reading for you—however
good his or her judgment.
As a result I can’t remember the last time I read a novel purely
for pleasure. Always in the back of my mind are the nagging questions,
“Could this be a film? Has this been optioned? Why hasn’t
this been filmed already?” It’s a terrible habit to develop
(one I’m trying to kick) whereby you approach each new book with
a sense of hope and expectation. Could this be the one? A feeling that
so often turns to disappointment the more you read, spoiling any hope
of simply enjoying the fiction on its own terms.
Directors Carol Reed and David Lean once bumped into each other in the
bookshop Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road in London. Both men were
gazing at the packed shelves of novels before them, eyes scanning every
title; speed reading sections, wondering about their potential as films.
Lean turned to Reed and sighed, “It’s infuriating. I know
I’m five feet away from my next picture but it will take me months
if not years to find it.” As I searched for a book to turn into
my first movie, I couldn’t shake this image of two of England’s
greatest film directors pan-handling for their next project, sifting
through the stream of world literature, searching for that telltale
glint of printed gold that would lead them to their next film.
So after many months of trying to ignore David’s novel, the phone
rang. It was Pippa Harris, the film’s U.K. producer. She asked
me if I had read Starter for 10 and would I like to come in
for a meeting about it, “Yes,” I lied, “of course
I’ve read it.” And then truthfully, “I love it. It’s
my favourite book.”