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A Talk with Screenwriter Michael Hastings

In 1956 George Devine invited Michael Hastings to join the Royal Court Theare as an actor and writer and he has been in show business ever since. His plays include Don't Destroy Me, Yes and After, The World's Baby, For the West, Murder Rap, Full Frontal, Midnite at the Starlite and Tom and Viv. He has written the screenplays for Hawkesmoor and Tom & Viv, which was nominated for two Oscars. He has one a number of awards for his work in London and New York, and is a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. He spoke to Masterpiece Theatre Online from this home in Brixton, England.


What attracted you to The American? How did you get involved in the project?

I met Rebecca Eaton from WGBH, and she said she'd always wanted to do The American. I told her it would be very good if you had Gary Cooper. She said, "Gary Cooper is not available, but Matthew Modine might be." I agreed to do it on the condition that I could change things around a bit. So it started on a very friendly note. When I reread the book, I realized it's difficult to adapt because it's about a concept of magnanimity. James wanted to say that after all the terrible things that happened to this American, somehow there is a certain quality of goodness in him which can say, "Well, I won't hang them all." And it's interesting that in the novel, Christopher Newman does indeed let the dreadful de Bellegarde family off the hook. But they still skewer him quite neatly in a very interesting, kind of psychological about-face. They know that this particular girl has low self-esteem.


You mean their daughter?

Yes. You know, the center of James is usually rather melodramatic and nasty. And if you were to put the sense of this book on a thumbnail, this girl was thrown into a marriage with some kind of aristocratic monster of families, who proceeded to indulge in some pretty grotesque and unspeakable acts. I mean, that's the hint behind everything. And I think James spends about six words saying it, but you know what he means.


It's all hinted at, rather than explicit.

And the other elements about Claire -- if we can zone in on Claire a little bit here -- is she had a bad deal following the marriage. Somehow the money wasn't enough. She felt a disgrace in some way. She was left with the rather curious feeling that she shouldn't even think of marriage for another 10 years. The only mystery to me about the book is that it is never really made clear why Christopher Newman felt he must take her away, marry her, take her abroad back to the new world. I mean, it's possible Christopher wanted to change everything, wanted to change her, revive her. But it isn't quite clear, and James can't quite get it clear.

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What did you feel you needed to change about The American to make it work for a contemporary audience?

I think there are changes from the book to the film because it wasn't really possible to dramatize it. When he finally destroys the evidence of the deep, dark secret of the de Bellegardes in the book, he burns it in front of one of the minor characters. In the film I felt we had to have some kind of confrontation between Madame de Bellegarde and him there. He hands it to her, and she burns it herself.


I thought that was interesting that you had her burn it.

He's letting the de Bellegardes off the hook.


But Madame de Bellegarde has a bit more of a manipulative role in the movie than in the book.

James does suggest that she herself had a pretty horrific marriage -- a marriage of expectation; an inhibited marriage where she was expected to marry into one of the families descended from the Bourbon kings. The 100 families, the rigidity of it. But on the other hand, you couldn't finish that film with a scene between Christopher and a minor character. It's a drama. There isn't time to have retrospection. You've got to get on with it. The principal characters are needed on the screen in front of your eyes, in my view.


At the end of the book, James is focused primarily on Newman's good nature; that he does burn the letter; that, as you said, they don't have the confrontation that they do in the film. But do you think that Newman still retains his good nature? Is that something you were interested in?

Well, in the heat of the moment he does decide that he is not going to force the issue any further; that he's going to get the girl.


That's what it comes down to for him in the film.

Yes. Unfortunately, he has misjudged the de Bellegardes and his future brother-in-law. And he has misjudged the sense of deep self-inflicted admonishment that Claire finally suffers when she knows everything. But it's a bit like riding an American saddle rather than an English saddle. You've got to take the general focus and go with it, and some things fall by the wayside.


So the love story was the priority.

Some characters do have to drop off the table. I mean, I have 90 minutes or something. The reader has hours.

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James often takes pages and pages to fully introduce and describe his main characters. How did you go about accomplishing the same task on film, where economy rules the day?

I set myself the singular task of putting the main characters in the forefront.... Film is visual brevity. You just can't do the same thing. It's a different medium. If the novel is a poem, the film is a telegram.


So you distilled his long pages into central situations, and let the characters reveal themselves?

Yes. There are a few leaps and jumps with Valentin, the younger brother, as well. He is made more scatty and impoverished, and yet noble, or he comes out that way in the film.


He does seem to be a bit more manic. He has outbursts in the film whereas in the book he keeps a more even keel. Why did you feel the need to heighten it, just for dramatic value?

I did like the sense of craziness. Although there seems to be a lot of money everywhere because they live well, he hasn't got a thing, and he is not really allowed to sell things.


He's the complete opposite of Newman.

It's intriguing, because Newman, as far as I can see, was always prepared to sell something. He is a businessman. He says somewhere, "'I was in business at the age of ten." But you do fail minor characters with James. I mean, the book is full of things like that that there is simply no time to derail yourself with.


Some things are very much alike in the film and the novel -- the character of Madame de Bellegarde, for example. But there are noticeable differences. One significant change is the revelation of the murder of Claire de Cintré's father by her mother, Madame de Bellegarde, right at the start. In the novel, this story is withheld until 300 or so pages in. What do you feel you gained, and what, if anything, did you lose?

I can't wait 300 pages. You've got to have a way into it the story. I mean, it's a very scary moment when the father pulls the sheet off his head and says, "I am dead." I felt that surely we should look at that first, rather than last.

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Fifteen years after he wrote the novel, James himself believed he needed to change the story to make it work on stage. Did you read James's own theatrical adaptation of The American as well as his novel before adapting the film?

I got the play out of the British Library.


He made it more of a comic play, which is, having read the book, a little shocking. What did you make of it? Did it have any impact on your adaptation of the story?

Well, he is still focusing on Christopher and Claire in a very intelligent way, but I think he had personal high hopes of making a great deal of money on this.


Yes, he did.

And he was dashed constantly. I believe all of his forays onto the stage, and other things, didn't work out too well, which is strange because there is something very populist about his initial concept. Almost every one of his books could be culled down to quite an unpleasant tidy little sexual conundrum, but they're all decorated with this amazing language. I have no idea whether it translates abroad very well, that complicated language.


Do you think that by its nature it has to be paired down or altered to work on the stage or screen?

I think so. A screenplay has only got about 30,000 words. He has got 400,000 words.


In terms of Claire's interactions with Newman and also his relationship with Noémie, why did you chose to make sex more explicit than in the book in your version of this story?

I think I was genuinely trying to pick Henry James's brain. He calls Noémie a coquette in the book, but [Noémie and Newman] don't make love. It seems that there is a price that she is willing to pay for certain things she wants in life. To Newman they are quite small sums of money. But I'm afraid I got slightly wrapped up in the idea of her bringing the so-called masterpieces to Newman's home, and him considering hanging them or putting them up. Then I got scared. I backtracked. I thought, "You can't really put fake Titians on the wall. There has got to be a point where one of them or both of them say, 'What are you doing here? You're not going to hang my paintings. You may be giving me a little bit of money, but that's not what it's really about.'"


The juxtaposition that James sets up in The American has become archetypal: the American in Europe. He's one of the first people who got that.

That's right. Newman asks, "What are Les Tuileries? What is Montmartre?" He wants to know what these places are. He says, "I want to go to them all."


But at the same time it seems he wants to take Claire away from all that and bring her back to the prairies and the 4th of July dance.

I think that's me. I think that's my writing, but it's based on all of the nudges that Henry James gave me. I think Newman had something more to offer her than money. He began to paint a portrait of an America that is half-built. There was a time in the 19th century when small towns were built, but the roads out weren't finished. You knew they were meant to go onto the next town, but they hadn't quite done it yet. There is something like that in Christopher's mind.


Is that what captures Claire's imagination, too?

Yes, I feel it does. She does detect that dream and realizes it is lovely, and it's enough for her love for him. But nothing ultimately, in my opinion, conquers her huge lack of self-esteem. She feels she is damaged goods.

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Do you think you would ever attempt to adapt a James novel again?

The famous ones have all been done quite a few times. But "Daisy Miller" interests me. It's got quite a lot of erotic, ghost-story elements about it. She thinks she sees extraordinary shadows in the darkness at night in Rome. It has almost a Tennessee Williams feel. He is constantly trying to describe something that can't be physically described.


It seems to be quite a challenge to try to make a movie from his work, which is so much about ideas rather than actual events. It's hinting at everything.

James is trying to often invoke extraordinary experiences and presences in the air. It is a mysterious and beautiful quality he's got as a writer.... That's always there if you've got the time and the patience to read it.


Which not everyone does. So I guess that the compromise in making the film is losing a little bit of that magic, but retaining the story.

Yes, but you can read James; you really can. It means you have to turn off the radio. You have to actually sit and concentrate. But it's all there.


Essays + Interviews:
About the Film | A Talk with Screenwriter Michael Hastings
A Talk with Diana Rigg | A Talk with Matthew Modine
The American on the Printed Page



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