Externalising Inner Turmoil in Wild
Nick Hornby on adapting Cheryl Strayed's memoir of her hike across America.
By Christopher McKittrick.
In March 2012, American writer Cheryl Strayed published a memoir titled Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail about her experience hiking the west coast of the United States in 1995. Despite her lack of backpacking experience, Strayed embarked on the deeply personal journey as she came to terms with her mother’s death and the resulting personal decisions that had led her life down a dangerous path. Actress and producer Reese Witherspoon actually optioned the film rights to the memoir a little less than two weeks before the book was published. Jean-Marc Vallée was hired to direct the film and English novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby was soon signed to adapt the book.
Though Hornby is best known for his novels like High Fidelity and About a Boy (both of which were adapted by other screenwriters for film versions), Hornby’s first book was the autobiographical Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life about Hornby’s dedication to the Arsenal Football Club. That book was adapted twice: first in 1997 from a script adapted by Hornby himself, and later in 2005 which transported the storyline to Boston and made the protagonist a fan of the Boston Red Sox baseball team (Hornby was an executive producer of the 2005 version). Still, outside of the original Fever Pitch when Hornby’s work has appeared on screen it has been adapted by other screenwriters. It wasn’t until 2009 that another screenplay that Hornby wrote was made into a film, and the result was An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig. However, An Education was not an original Hornby story – it was adapted by Hornby from an autobiographical essay written by Lynn Barber. Hornby was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award, and Wild is the second time that Hornby is adapting a memoir written by a female writer. 2015 will see the release of Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan, made from a screenplay Hornby adapted from the novel by Colm Tóibín
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Hornby about his recent trend of adapting stories starring female protagonists, the challenges of writing a screenplay featuring so many non-dialogue scenes, and the importance of establishing a strong relationship with the original author of the work one is adapting.
Your earliest novels and their film adaptations became known for your focus on male protagonists. But in recent years your screenwriting has featured female protagonists. Do you have a guess why you are now a go-to writer for film adaptations with female leads?
Well, I like doing it, so there’s that. From my point of view, I think I lost interest in the kind of men I had been writing about and I couldn’t think of anything more to say about them. My novels have changed too as I’ve gotten older, probably beginning with How to Be Good, which had a female protagonist. An Education really changed a lot for me. I found the material and wanted to do it, and I guess because the movie worked then I was offered other things. All the stories I have been doing recently have seemed really compelling to me.
Following up on that, something I noticed about Wild is that while there are numerous goodhearted male characters, there are several dramatic points in which men are inappropriate towards Cheryl or outright threatening. What do you think these scenes bring to the story or what do they tell us about Cheryl’s character?
What she was doing was a dangerous thing, there’s no doubt about it, and she was a danger to herself in the backstory. She kind of lost the plot a bit. I think when you step outside the line you’re going to meet all kinds of people that you wouldn’t necessarily want to meet. On the trail there are two guys toward the end of the movie who are threatening towards her, and time and time again on the trail she meets men who she thinks are going to be threatening and they turn out not to be, like Frank, the guy who takes her back to his home and the biker guys who pick her up when she’s hitchhiking. What she comes across on the trail is much more generosity than she expected, in fact. That’s one of the things I really like about the movie.
Wild jumps between the present trail scenes and the past that brought Cheryl to the trail. Since many of the trail scenes tend to be more sobering than the flashbacks, how did you ensure that you struck a tonal balance between the two time periods when you wrote the script?
Obviously that was the main challenge because there’s so much compelling material in the backstory and there’s a lot of quiet and solitude in the present story. I could always feel that those two things would contrast. There was going to be a lot of emotional chaos in the backstory and a lot of intense focus on the past in the present story. The trick was to try and make the present, which ironically is a very dramatic hike, as compelling as the past. So there are a lot of physical threats and danger on the trail. We hoped that people would become as absorbed in that as they did in Cheryl’s past relationships.
I’m really not drawn to the outdoors and I’m not a hiker. The things that I really responded to in Cheryl’s book were not necessarily that element of the story. The brilliance of the book is that it places people with this kind of urban, liberal arts sensibility right on the trail with her. What I wanted to get across was that feeling that it could be any of us on there, unprepared, and rather hopeless and having to learn on the job.
The opening scene, when she rips off the bloody toenail, is unbearable enough to some people and an excellent way to shock audiences into the movie.
Exactly. She is doing stuff that she didn’t ever think she could do. A lot of us in the movie theater probably think we couldn’t do it either, but we get dragged along with her.
How do you confront the challenge of adapting a scene that reads great as a page in the book but in its original form might not be cinematic?
The effort went into the inner monologue to find a way of externalizing Cheryl’s inner turmoil. I came up with that voiceover – which is something in between stream of consciousness and recollections in tranquility – that actually sounds different, somewhere in between a conscious and unconscious sound. I knew that a lot of the time she would be trudging along, but if you can hear that mess and jumble I hoped that would make the movie compelling.
What scene or scenes did you find most challenging to adapt?
The scene where they shoot the horse was extremely difficult. It’s incredibly riveting to read in the book. I have to say, I’ve never written a book where anything or anybody gets shot. [Laughs] In terms of the whole thing, I’ve never written so much physical descriptions before. The screenplays that I’ve done have not been about people on their own. So that was really interesting to me because I tried to describe what I wanted to see on screen, but I learned from Jean-Marc that I could write five lines and that was actually going to take three or four minutes of screentime. That was a real learning curve for me to recalculate how long everything was going to take. It was perplexing to me at first, like when she is putting the tent up. She tries to put it up, she fails, and it falls down. It doesn’t take very long to say, but it takes a long time to do it in a way that is going to convince an audience that it’s a frustrating and difficult thing to do. I read somewhere that the screenplay for All Is Lost was about thirty-five pages. You can absolutely see how that happens.
As an author who has seen others adapt your work, when you adapt the work of others for film – especially memoir, as with An Education and Wild – do you have cardinal rules in mind to ensure your adaptation is an accurate reflection of the original authors’ work?
The only cardinal rule is to try to make sure the author is kept in the loop and understands why we’re doing the things we’re doing. Sometimes the book can disappear for years at a time. It didn’t with Wild because we worked really hard and fast, so Cheryl had a completely unrealistic experience. [Laughs] I know with some of my novels they’ve gone for three years and I have no idea what’s happened to them, where they are, or who they’re with. My only cardinal rule if I’m working as a producer is, does the author know this is going on? Make sure you tell him or her. Other than that, I think you just have to do what you got to do to make a book into a movie, and a movie is a different thing. The people whose work I’ve adapted so far have been so incredibly generous and very smart about that. They haven’t said, “Oh, you left this bit out” or “I didn’t write it like that.” They’ve all understood.
From the side, being that your work has been adapted as screenplays by others, do any concerns go through your head when someone else is adapting a novel you wrote?
I don’t have any concerns. You either decide to sell the work or not. If you sell it, I think once you meet the people who buy it and you’re convinced they want to make the right sort of movie, then after that you just have to let them go on with it. I’ve learned that you cannot control the process. Nobody can because it’s wildly collaborative and any single element can make or break it. You just have to let it go. I’ve always enjoyed meeting the people, and lots and lots of friendships have been made through the processes. I’m not anxious about anything.