We’ve been having a bit of fun this week, over on the Urbane Twitter feed, picking different leads to star in films (it’s fun for us, we don’t get out much). The rules are simple: pick your favourite Urbane Publications book, say who you’d like to see play the lead character in a film adaptation of it, then see if other people – and the author- agree. While, for the most part, the game was a bit of pre Christmas fun, I must also admit to the sinister, authory pretention of just being damn curious as to how people were reading my book. When they read of the wretched Peter Lowe and his shuffle towards contrition, how did they visualise the character as he went on his drink sodden journey?
I, like I’m sure all of you, have read books where the author intentionally doesn’t leave much to the imagination, almost as if they wish to force the reader into visualising particular features, or at the very least a vividly discernible silhouette, determined to ensure the reader shares as much of the writer’s artistic vision as possible. Some books even go so far as to name a celebrity or historical person whom their character resembles, a well known example being Ian Fleming, who described his famous spy, in his Casino Royale debut as looking, “rather (like) Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless”, a comparison he reminds us of in later novels. There is, of course, nothing wrong in imposing so forceful a description, other than perhaps adding to an author’s conceit and leaving them open to disappointment should their book ever be filmed. But compare such precise presentation as Fleming’s with, for example, that of the nameless assassin, in Frederick Forsyth’s masterpiece 1971 novel, The Day of the Jackal. The anonymity of the protagonist is woven into the text, with the reader every bit as in the dark as to the identity of the man as the detectives who seek to stop him. The only clue we get to the Jackal’s appearance (so wonderfully brought to life by Edward Fox) is his height, eyes, his frequently changing hair colour and few distinguishing features, and the story is all the better for it.
Very often, from listening to other writers, a story may begin with the author having no clear idea, and no particular desire to present one, of how their characters should look; such considerations not immediately relevant to the tale, only for the image to grow stronger, the further on the writing gets. That was certainly the case with my own book, Escape to Perdition, with I started with a basic template and an idea of what I wanted the character to feel and the journey I wanted him to go through, but no specific prejudice regarding his looks. It wasn’t until I’d been writing for a while that I realised who I would want to be that character and why, but, at least in my own case, I didn’t start out concerned with writing something I thought would be suitable for a particular person, but thinking afterwards who would be suitable for the writing. And much as I believe my own mental image of Peter Lowe to be definitive (well I would, wouldn’t I?), I’m always thrilled to hear who else comes to people’s minds when reading the story. Just this week I’ve heard suggestions ranging from James Purefoy to David Tennant to Clive Owen – all great choices which give me a fantastic insight into how people are visualising (and hopefully enjoying) my story, and surely it’s the reader’s enjoyment which is the point?
Ultimately, no matter how ferociously an author may cling to their own visual concept of a character, the moment they sign on the dotted line for a movie deal, that vision counts for very little and, history tells us, is even open to change. The aforementioned Mr Fleming was vehemently opposed to the casting of a certain Sean Connery in Dr No, before being so impressed with his performance that he wrote Bond’s half Scottish heritage into later novels. Likewise, the wonderful Bernard Cornwell, was anecdotally unhappy when Sean Bean replaced injured first choice, Paul McGann, as Peninsular War Rifleman, Richard Sharpe – the blonde, Sheffield born actor not fitting with Cornwell’s description of a tall, dark haired Londoner. Cornwell too would later be won over by the role’s incumbent, not only dedicating his book Sharpe’s Battle to Sean Bean, but writing a period in Sheffield into the character’s background.
But even more powerful than the decision of a casting director, is the mind of the reader. When I read James Bond, I don’t think of Hoagy Carmichael, when I read Great Expectations, I don’t think of John Mills and Colin Firth doesn’t dance before my mind’s eye when I turn the pages of Pride and Prejudice. And nor should they. Reading is just about the most private pleasure we can experience with your clothes on (steady) and how, what and why we do it should be up to each individual reader; frankly we writery types should simply appreciate the fact that people want to read our words and not get too precious about how they visualise, or interpret, them. A book, after all, is like a jigsaw puzzle which the reader tries to piece together. Some readers will start from the edges, some from the middle; the end result is the same, but getting there sometimes requires a different way of looking at things. Happy piecing…