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TIFF From book to TIFF premiere, something’s gone Amis in London Fields

London Fields stars, from left to right, Billy Bob Thornton (background), Theo James, Amber Heard and Jim Sturgess.

Steffan Hill

'I find myself indulging in the vulgar reveries of a movie sale," writes the narrator and author substitute midway through Martin Amis's London Fields. "There must be a dozen hot actresses who would kill for the part of Nicola Six. I can think of several bankable stalwarts who could handle Guy … As for Keith, you'd need a total-immersion expert, a dynamic literalist who'd live like a trog for two or three years as part of his preparation for the role."

So far so good: One can imagine Hollywood rising to the occasion. But then he detects a snag. It's the part of Marmaduke: The novel's delightfully ludicrous nightmare baby is inconceivable beyond the page. The narrator explains: "The only difficulty is Marmaduke. Typical Marmaduke. Maximum difficulty. Always. Maybe you could dispose with an infant star and go with a little robot or even some kind of high-tech cartoon. It's amazing what they can do. Or, because age and time have gone so wrong now, why not a youthful dwarf, wearing diaper and baby mask?"

The London Fields movie has at last arrived, 26 years after the novel's publication. It will enjoy its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday. The part of Nicola Six, bombshell beauty and this murder mystery's would-be murderee, went to Amber Heard – blonde to Nicola's on-page brunette but otherwise a good fit. Meanwhile Keith, the lager-drinking, darts-playing, granny-grifting cheat, is played by Jim Sturgess, too much the matinee idol to look the role but here agreeably befouled. Sturgess has to recommend him the fact that he performed in yellowface for Cloud Atlas – if nothing else a testament to total-immersion expertise. As Keith, Sturgess isn't quite buoyant enough – he leans rather more toward sleazy and severe – but it's the nature of interpretation for things to change. The man really does look as if he's lived for years as a trog.

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As for the feral child, it turns out that the filmmakers took the narrator's suggestion. Marmaduke is indeed played by a youthful dwarf: an English actor in his late 20s named Craig Garner, seen previously in Get Santa (as an elf) and Snow White and the Huntsman (as you can probably guess). Garner does the infant terror with tremendous verve, scrambling through rooms on hands and knees in a dinosaur onesie, punching and clawing anyone incautious enough to be near him, and pausing only to smoke a cigarette. The Marmaduke difficulty was handily conquered – no high-tech cartoons necessary. He's the funniest thing in the film.

"It wasn't like I imagined it in the book" is of course a cliché. But it's only a cliché because the adaptation differs from the book so often: Things change, whether for reasons of economy or ease, and we find our affection compromised. Some essence of the work we love is invariably lost.

In this respect London Fields is an unusual case. It is, to begin with, remarkably faithful to its source material: The overall architecture of the novel has been replicated almost exactly, and what aspects of the story have been excised – Sam's relationship with Hope's sister Lizzyboo, for instance, as well as Keith's ongoing con with the unsuspecting senior – were plainly taken out in order to reduce a nearly 500-page book to a more manageable feature length. The dialogue has been lifted wholesale, happily, including extended passages of voice-over narration (intoned a touch too somberly for my taste by Billy Bob Thornton, otherwise well-cast as Sam). Most surprising is the tone that prevails: The impending threat of nuclear Armageddon that looms implicitly over the novel is carried over and even exaggerated, made explicit – and this despite the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction having long since receded from the popular imagination.

What I found myself missing most were the minor details that furnish the novel – the texture of the material. There's no Darts: Master the Discipline, no concordance of Nicola's kisses, no fixation on kegged lager, only the briefest glimpse of Clive the dog and "Outrage by Ambrosi". (In lieu of Kim Twemlow, Keith's darts hero, we have another legend of the sport – played in an amusing cameo by Amis himself.) These are minor casualties of the transition from page to screen. Such losses are no doubt inevitable. But perhaps the losses themselves serve a useful function. They direct us, in their absence, back to the source: In the will to learn more, to experience the joy of the material from which the movie was drawn, the viewer becomes the reader. The genius of Amis's masterpiece is there waiting for anyone interested. One hopes a new audience will be led its way.

London Fields screens at TIFF Sept. 18, 6:30 p.m., Princess of Wales; Sept. 19, 3:45 p.m., Bloor Hot Docs Cinema; and Sept. 20, 12:30 p.m., Scotiabank Theatre.

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