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How Twilight's Stephenie Meyer's ‘unfilmable’ novel became a Hollywood movie

Meyer initially thought Saoirse Ronan was too young for the main roles, but now says: ‘She could play Iron Man and we’d buy it.’

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When Stephenie Meyer wrote her sci-fi thriller The Host as a kind of escape from the pressure of her massively successful Twilight franchise, she thought it would be "unfilmable." Two of the main characters inhabit the same body, so much of the dialogue is an inner conversation between the two – one human, one not. How on Earth could you portray that on film?

Hollywood figured it out; The Host, starring Saoirse Ronan, opens in theatres on Friday. As for escaping all the Twilight-type attention, forget it. Meyer has once again put her writing on hold (she's planning two sequels to The Host) as she hits the publicity circuit to promote what started as a side project.

What could be Meyer's next big franchise imagines an apocalyptic world where aliens have taken over by inserting themselves into human bodies. The bodies continue to function, but they are only flesh-and-blood shells hosting the body-snatchers.

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Or so it seems. As the invading soul Wanderer discovers after being inserted into the body of a young woman named Melanie, the inhabited human can still exist, buried deep inside. Initially enemies, Wanderer and Melanie develop a cross-species friendship, and Wanderer tries to forge an alliance with the few humans who remain hidden on Earth.

During a recent interview in Vancouver, Meyer, 39, said she began writing The Host while editing Eclipse, the third novel in the Twilight series. "The whole reason why I wrote this story was initially to get away from the pressure of Twilight," said Meyer, who set the story in the hot, dry southwestern desert. "The Twilight world … had become … a little scary. People were reading it and there was pressure involved, and press and everything. And I wanted to get to another world where I didn't have anything I had to worry about."

Meyer, whose Twilight novels have sold more than 100-million copies, says she initially had no plans to publish The Host.

"I was like, I'm just going to write a story just for me. Because writing the Twilight stories, I knew people were going to read them. I have a weird kind of stage fright, I guess, about knowing someone's going to read what I'm writing. And then I get so nervous while I'm writing … So with The Host, it was 'oh, no one has to see this and it's so relaxing again.'"

But encouraged by her publisher, The Host was released in May 2008 and debuted at number-one on the New York Times bestsellers list. Producer Nick Wechsler (Magic Mike) approached her about adapting the book for film.

"And I said I don't know how – it's all taking place inside someone's head," says Meyer. "And he said, 'We just have to find people who know how to do it.'"

Andrew Niccol came on board to direct and adapt the novel, which went from a more-than-600-page book to a 120-page screenplay.

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The project hit some roadblocks, Meyer says, when some studios couldn't see past the idea of using visual effects to get the two-personality issue across on screen. "There were some really weird ideas going around," she says. "And Andrew always knew it was going to be a performance issue. We just needed to have a really amazing actress, and then it would take care of itself. And he was exactly right."

Wechsler suggested Ronan, then 17, but Meyer felt she was too young for the part: "We've already done a movie with young people; I don't want to go down that road again." But Niccol kept at her, urging her to watch Ronan's performance in the film Hanna. "And it changed my mind, really quickly," says Meyer, "like, [as I was watching] the movie." Why? "I mean, she could play Iron Man and we'd buy it, because she's that good."

With the movie now opening, Meyer can laugh off her initial concerns about the story being unfilmable. "With Saoirse, there are times watching it you completely forget she's talking to herself. … The characters are just both there on the screen; she's doing both at the same time. I don't know how she does it, but she was so the right choice."

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