Fine art of adapting thriller for the big screen audience

Before I Go To Sleep: Nicole Kidman as Christine Lucas.
Before I Go To Sleep: Nicole Kidman as Christine Lucas.
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Film critic Tony Earnshaw talks exclusively to writer SJ Watson and director Rowan Joffe who have pooled their talents for Before I Go to Sleep.

The last time Rowan Joffe adapted a classic novel the writer had been dead for 19 years.

That was for Brighton Rock in 2010, a remake of the 1947 film that transformed the career of the late Richard Attenborough. Tackling Before I Go to Sleep meant not only adapting a current bestseller but also collaborating with its writer, debut novelist SJ Watson, who is very much alive.

Watson’s book came out in 2010 and became an immediate smash. It tells the story of a woman with brain injuries who wakes each morning not remembering anything of the previous 24 hours’ events. Only her husband and a mysterious doctor can offer any clues.

It has now been turned into a very sympathetic film version starring Nicole Kidman as the amnesiac, Colin Firth as the husband, Mark Strong as the doctor and Anne-Marie Duff as a long-lost friend.

“The thing that Steve and I have got is that I’m a screenwriter and, although I’m not a novelist, my sympathies are naturally with writers,” says Joffe. “I’m used to being screwed over, mistreated and neglected as a screenwriter. I do it for a living. So it was important for me on a personal level that Steve never felt like that.”

Joffe is referring to projects such as Last Resort, which was directed by Pawel Pawlikowski; 28 Days Later, the impressive horror sequel directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, and Anton Corbijn’s The American, starring George Clooney. For his part Watson considers the production of the movie as the latest in a succession of pinch-me moments.

“I never dreamt that any film would be made of this book,” he reveals. “My biggest ambition for the book was that it might get published.”

When the dream became a reality Watson made a very definite decision to keep a safe distance. It was partly a reaction to meeting Joffe and producer Liza Marshall, who he trusted, and partly an instinct of self-preservation.

“I saw my job as just making sure it was in the right hands. I thought: ‘That’s all I can do. If I try and interfere I risk ruining it’.”

Joffe, the son of Killing Fields director Roland Joffe and actress Jane Lapotaire, brought a personal element into his pitch when he and Marshall met with Watson. “My mum had a brain haemorrhage in 2000. I remember that Steve’s mood altered when I said that,” says Joffe. Watson was impressed at Joffe’s gift for stripping away exposition to present the nakedness of the story.

“There are some issues in Before I Go to Sleep that I really struggled with how to make work. Rowan came up with a really clever way of getting round a problem that I spent pages and pages of exposition trying to explain. He came up with something that was instantaneous.”

As for Joffe, he bristles at the notion that a movie is entirely the result of its director’s vision.

“A director is like a football manager. I pick a really good team and come up with a strategy for the game. But it would be ludicrous for a football manager to take all the glory. It’s a lie that has been perpetuated over the years because it suits the commercial interests of the film industry to peg a movie to a specific director’s name. Movies should be equally credited to the writer and the director.

“It’s why it’s really important that Steve’s name as the novelist appears right after me.”