Of course turning something that’s essentially immaterial into something material is more complicated than taking a sentence out of a novel and making it into a high-backed chair for the lovely Taylor Schilling to sit on. There are dozens of people involved in the act of translation – enough people that, as in the kids’ game of “telephone,” there are about 100 ways things can go wrong, though “wrong” is obviously subjective. What I imagined when I wrote Stay and what Wiebke von Carolsfeld (Stay’s wonderful and talented screenwriter-director) has reimagined cannot be the same. Even if the forms didn’t demand different things (film scripts have to externalize the internal), different readers do, which is to say that the angle will always be a bit different. Lionel Shriver, who wrote the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, once said of Lynne Ramsay, who directed the film version, that “[f]or a director – particularly a writer-director – there’s a process by which you need to make your material your own, which means wrestling away possession of your story from its author.” As with most adaptations, the film and the novel version of Stay do diverge in terms of plot, character and dialogue – but “wrestling” might be the wrong word to describe the process. A narrative isn’t like a toy truck two kids can tug at in a sandbox; it’s incorporeal, it’s something that the author already knows is up for grabs in every encounter with the reader.
In the 1969 essay Phenomenology of Reading, Belgian philosopher Georges Poulet talks about how books are objects, and how the extraordinary aspect of books is the falling away of the barrier between the content of the book and its reader. Of the act of reading a book, he writes, “You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside.” Poulet goes on to say that in reading, “the book is no longer a material reality. It has become a series of words, of images, of ideas which in their turn begin to exist.” In many ways a filmmaker is the ideal reader because the images and ideas that begin to exist for them as a reader have the power to become images and ideas that can exist for millions of viewers.
Externality shapes narrative
It goes without saying that before there is an “inside the author’s head,” there is a very real externality that helps shape the narrative. Part of what made being on the set of Wiebke’s version of Stay seem so eerily similar to the world I’d imagined was the fact that she chose to locate so many of the film’s settings in the very places I’d been thinking of when I was writing and researching the novel. Spiddal is a small village outside Galway that juts up against the North Atlantic. When I was 18 and 19 and living in Dublin, it was my favourite place in the country. The cottage that inspired Dermot’s cottage was a real whitewashed thatch structure just outside of town. The pub the director ended up filming in was called Hughes, a two-roomed, low-ceilinged pub that had been my watering hole of choice. It was the kind of pub that never seemed to be trying to please anyone but the locals. This is probably why I used Hughes as the pub in the novel – even going so far as to make the rookie mistake of failing to change its name in the book. Walking onto the set in Hughes then, and seeing Aidan Quinn sitting at the bar looking every inch the Dermot-sitting-in-Hughes of my imagination, was like watching an old and blurry film come sharply into focus, though having “Dermot” step out of the frame to come over and say, “So you’re the writer? How’s it going?” was wholly unexpected.