Ian McEwan: Literature breathes life into cinema

I spent most of my time writing, politics has never captivated me

There is also immediacy about a movie that is hard to beat. It is as if you were in the room yourself, watching. A novel has to work hard to give you that feeling, author Ian McEwan says in an interview to Europost.

Mr McEwan, you took part in the official opening of the CineLibri festival and spoke before students about freedom of speech that same day? What did you tell them?

Well, I think it is a matter of serious concern that around the world, and even in Europe, freedom of speech has come under serious pressure. I think this is true also in the US where a culture has arisen, it is also true in the UK, where if a speaker with a different view is coming to the university, the students will organise themselves to prevent the speaker from coming because they say they feel threatened. It is a strange phenomenon for my generation whereas the idea of a university was to be precisely the place where a lot of ideas would mash. That is a minor version of the global problem.

You are one of those authors who do not shy away from expressing a strong political view. When the UK held its Brexit referendum you voiced your concerns. What were they and are they still relevant today?

I was against it from the very beginning. I think it is a huge mistake. We have been in the European Union for over 40 years, we have generally flourished with so many trade arrangements that the EU has made around the world. I also think, fundamentally, it is a great mistake to make such a huge decision on the basis of one opinion poll. It was very narrow anyway, 52% to 48%. It was meant to be an advisory referendum, it was not meant to be binding, but somehow the result was seized by our political right who have always hated the idea of being connected to Europe. I think when one bit of the country or one country wants to make such fundamental changes, and you decide to have a referendum, it is a very bad idea just to do it on the basis of a 50/50, first-past-the-post basis, because now what we find in Britain is that we are a very divided nation. The people who want the Brexit cannot understand the Remainers, and the Remainers cannot understand the ones who want to leave.

You have been ranked as one of the most powerful people in British literature and culture. Do you feel that power in other areas?

I do not feel particularly powerful. Take for instance Brexit, I have no power over it and my side is almost certainly going to lose. I spent my time mostly writing, not so much speaking about public affairs. If I have any power at all, I hope it is over other people's imaginations and their pleasure in reading. That is the kind of power I am interested in.

I have read the synopsis of your next book Machines Like Me. Can you tell us more about the story?

I cannot tell you much at this stage. It investigates something that is going to be coming into our lives more and more, and that is artificial intelligence. It raises the question of whether an 'artificial human' could be conscious, and how we are going to respond to that future - whether we should regard it as a threat or an opportunity, or even if we can do anything about it. It is about a man who buys one of the very first robots who are a complete replica of a human. But I have also set it in the past, in 1982, so science is at a different stage. It is also an altered past, politically, but it has many of the same problems that we have today. It is a love triangle as well - the man buys a male robot who falls in love with his girlfriend, so it is also a very old-fashioned story of a love triangle.

Given your biography, do you see your books becoming films while you write them?

No, I never think about it. I suppose I should, but I do not. It just does not interest me. If a novel works out into a movie, it is fine. I do not know if this one will or not. If someone is interested, then maybe.

Do you find it hard to cede control of a screenplay when you are not writing it for a film adaptation of one of your works?

Oh yes. If I am not writing the screenplay, then I leave it, you have to stand back. Even if you are writing the screenplay, you are having to compromise and collaborate with other people. And moviemaking still remains a director's medium. Not so true in television now, but with movies that is the arrangement.

With the film On Chesil Beach that I presented at CineLibri, the director Dominic Cooke is a very old friend of mine and we have worked on other things together a long time ago. He is also a theatre director, and I think they have more respect for writers than many film directors. It was a good collaboration.

Have you ever left a project because of creative differences with the director?

No, never. Looking back, it has been more a matter of luck than anything else, but I have worked with good people. Bernardo Bertolucci walked away because we could not get the screenplay right, and he suddenly saw an opportunity to make a movie in China - The Last Emperor.

In your opinion, how do cinema and literature compare?

They are very, very different, of course. I think novels are very good at giving you the inner life, and with movies you have to find the equivalence for that. You cannot describe someone's thoughts. With On Chesil Beach I was very lucky to have Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, two young actors who could really go a long way towards a sense of inner life.

There is also immediacy about a movie that is hard to beat. It is as if you were in the room yourself, watching. A novel has to work hard to give you that feeling.

Do you work closely with the actors involved in the film adaptations of your books?

I stay around through rehearsal. Once the shooting starts, there is nothing really a writer could do, unless something goes wrong. If suddenly a scene is not working, you might need some extra lines or even to rewrite a scene. And sometimes, too, in post-production you might want to reshoot scenes. But on the whole, once rehearsal is over, there is nothing for a writer to do on a film set. Film sets could be very boring. Each set-up is very long. It is fine if you have got a job, but if you are just sitting there, drinking coffee and eating sandwiches, it can get a bit dull.


Ian McEwan was born in 1948 in Aldershot, UK. He has authored 15 novels translated into over 30 languages. He was recently in Bulgaria as a special guest of the 4th CineLibri festival, at whose opening McEwan presented the film On Chesil Beach, an adaptation of his eponymous novel. A winner of The Man Booker Prize, he is considered to be one of his generation's brightest representatives of British fiction.

Similar articles