My life’s been a circle of violence and degradation for as long as I can remember. I’m ready to tie it off.
David Denby on grief and anger over the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman: http://nyr.kr/1exVuAF
“Most of the young men developed over the past twenty years—or, properly, created by the marketplace—have been buffoons, including Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Will Smith, and now Seth Rogen. And many more. When we lose a dramatic actor like Heath Ledger, he’s not likely to be replaced. And the same is true for a man in his forties like Hoffman. His death leaves an enormous hole that big-studio Hollywood has no commercial reason to fill. It will take the independent cinema years to find his equal.”
Photograph by Thomas Schlijper/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux.
How I persuaded Ralph Fiennes to play Charles Dickens
As the film of her biography of The Invisible Woman comes to the big screen, Claire Tomalin reveals what it feels like to have your book adapted
Most writers can tell stories of how their books failed to be made into films. I had forgotten until I looked up old notes that I sold the film rights of my first book, a life of Mary Wollstonecraft: there was a lunch, a contract, a small sum of money, then nothing. Much the same happened with Mrs Jordan’s Profession: a lot of interest and excitement, then it fizzled out (twice). And again with my life of Pepys. For yearsThe Invisible Woman seemed destined to be yet another unmade film.
Biographies are, in their nature, far more difficult to make into films than novels, because novels come with plots constructed and dialogue written, whereas I don’t invent dialogue for my subjects or plot their lives for them. Biographers search for traces, for evidence of activity, for signs of movement, for letters, for diaries, for photographs. You can’t make a film out of that. And, as the title of The Invisible Woman tells us, its subject was an obscure person. She lived from 1839 to 1914, and it is not possible even to be sure about where she was and what she was doing for some of that time. Even in the diary of her lover she was no more than a letter ‘N’. Her name, Ellen Lawless Ternan – Nelly – has no resonance. And in 1876, when she married, that name disappeared.
When it surfaced again, it was only for the fact that she caught the attention of a great writer, Charles Dickens. And since their relationship was a secret one, and remained a carefully guarded secret for decades after his death, there was not much material to play with.
But when I researched my book, I found the experiences of Nelly, and her grandmother, mother and sisters, intensely interesting. They opened up a world quite unknown to me, and illuminated Dickens in a new way. They were all professional actors, hard workers, serious in pursuing their careers, ill rewarded and never considered respectable because the theatre itself was disreputable. It happened that Dickens, who also grew up in poverty and with little education, loved the theatre passionately and cherished its reliance on imagination and spontaneity, allied to discipline and self-reliance. He saw the Ternans – widowed mother and three daughters – as embodiments of these values. So the story became how he gave the Ternans practical help and changed his own way of living altogether as he pursued the magically attractive Nelly. In the process he rejected his wife, cruelly and without compunction. His public readings became supremely important to him, and he wrote two of his greatest novels during these years, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. Nelly was sent proofs and seems to have discussed his work with him. She was hidden in France for several years, and a child was born and died. Dickens never considered divorce.
Nelly was financially supported by Dickens but paid a price in loneliness. He could not acknowledge her as his companion in public. Theirs was a romance with harsh constraints. From Dickens, Nelly learned how to deceive. Just as he had tricked the world by using false names and installing her as Mrs Tringham in the houses he shared with her, so after his death she used the simple trick of taking 10 years off her age to protect herself from questions. She reinvented herself.
She relied on her sisters Fanny and Maria to collude with her in becoming 21 rather than 31. Both were by then married, and ready to blot out their years in the theatre. But Nelly, once married to the young clergyman who fell in love with her, had to lie for the rest of her life to him and to their children. This was, for me, the crux of the story. Only after her death did her son discover, on his return from the first world war, that his mother had given him a false account of her life. He was shattered by the discovery and hated the name of Dickens thereafter.
The Invisible Woman was published in 1990. In the mid-90s, the BBC invited me to write a four-part television serial based on the story. I toiled away, writing and rewriting, only to have it turned down by senior BBC executives.
Ten years passed. Then, out of the blue, in 2006, three new proposals for adaptations came. One was from a playwright I greatly admired,Simon Gray. We talked at length and he went on to write a play, lit with his intelligence and enthusiasm for Dickens. It is brilliant, but very short: he was ill and had not long to live. His play, Little Nell, was broadcast and played in Bath in a production by Peter Hall with a fine cast in 2007, but for a few performances only. I have no doubt it will be seen again.
The two further proposals came from a film company, Mark Shivas's Headline Pictures, and a television company. It was a difficult choice, but I opted for Headline, won over by the enthusiasm of a young script writer, Abi Morgan. After this heady moment, silence fell for two years. Shivas died, and Morgan was on a rising wave of success. I sometimes felt like a jealous lover – it seemed to me that every time I opened a newspaper I saw she was engaged on a script for someone else’s book.
Then, in January 2011, Headline told me that Ralph Fiennes was interested in directing a film of The Invisible Woman. A lunch was arranged with Fiennes and Morgan. I had met Fiennes once before and found him charming, funny and modest. Now I was struck by his physical resemblance to Dickens. “You were born to play Dickens,” I told him – but his plan was to direct.
Fiennes read Dickens, and about Dickens, absorbing his exuberance, his goodness and his capacity for cruelty. Tales of great men and women should include the other tales of those around them who pay the price for their greatness, and this one was no exception. Fiennes insisted that the central figure must be Nelly – and he found in Felicity Jones an actor of great intelligence, as well as beauty, to play her, and, in Joanna Scanlan, a wondrously good Mrs Dickens.
I went on thinking he must play Dickens. The more we talked about the man, the writer and the script, the more I wanted to see him in the part. At last I heard that he was growing his beard – a good sign. He had agreed to do it.
Seeing the shooting was a dreamlike experience. I spent a day in a City mansion (representing the Free Trade Hall in Manchester) where I was faced with a troop of familiar figures: Wilkie Collins, Catherine Dickens, Charley (the eldest son), Mrs Ternan, Nelly and Maria Ternan. The settings and background were immaculate, the costumes, flawless.
Next, I was invited to the Bluebell railway to see the climactic scene of the train crash at Staplehurst and its aftermath – bloodied extras stumbled about, Nelly lay prone in the wet grass with a grazed face and Dickens extricated himself from the wrecked train to look for her. The crash was big news when it happened in 1865, and pictures of the scene appeared in newspapers, along with stories of the heroism of Dickens in ministering to the wounded. Meanwhile, Nelly was smuggled away, an anonymous young woman.
In my book I say the crash threatened Dickens’s privacy and brought home to Nelly the humiliation of her position – that it showed her she had to live “in the gap between what could be said and what really happened”. The film seizes this moment to make the point without a word of explanation – a triumph.
It is not the same story as the one I tell. The film portrays a love story and is given a happy ending. It leaves out Nelly’s deviousness and suggests that she finds resolution by confessing to a benevolent clergyman, but this is not what happened. The Margate life, and the school, failed. Her husband George had a breakdown. The clergyman betrayed Nelly’s confidence. Never mind. It shows us Dickens in all his ambivalence, wreaking havoc on his wife and family – also blessedly good as he tries to help the lowest and poorest in society. It is not a simple-minded film – it allows for people being complex, changeable, human.