The author of sixteen novels, Deborah Moggach is best known in the U.S. for the screenplay of Pride and Prejudice, the feature film starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. Her first adaptation for Masterpiece was Love in a Cold Climate, based on the Nancy Mitford novel.
Screenwriter Deborah Moggach's first foray into adapting non-fiction was The Diary of Anne Frank. In a March, 2010 interview with Masterpiece's Richard Maurer, Moggach reflected on crafting a more accurate and human Anne Frank and bringing out the natural humor behind the solemnity of the story.
Select a topic from the list below to see Moggach's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
The Anne Frank Screenplay
What was your approach to adapting The Diary of Anne Frank for television?
I felt that Anne had been, not exactly misrepresented, but sanctified by knowledge of what happened to her. I wanted to approach her as the girl that she was. Some of the earlier adaptations made her slightly goody-goody. My take on her — through reading the diary, talking to people who knew her, and reading books about her — was that she was a typical adolescent girl. She was obsessed with boys; she was fractious with her mother; she was wonderful, intelligent and quick-witted. But it wasn't that easy to get along with her. I wanted her to reflect the way adolescence really feels, so that she would speak to the generation today and seem as if she had just stepped out of the room.
I pictured this adaptation as like a video diary. Anne would be speaking to us intimately and very candidly, because she was pitilessly honest about herself and about the seven others in the secret annex, where they hid from the Nazis in the center of Amsterdam for two years. I wanted it warts and all, but not disrespectful. The hideous irony of history is that the very moment that she would be struggling away from her parents to forge her own identity, particularly somebody as strong-willed as Anne, was the very moment that she was holed up with them in these small rooms, not only in fear of her life, but having to behave well, and be obedient, and quiet and good.
How would you compare this adaptation with previous ones?
Buddy Elias, Anne's cousin who is still alive, told me that it was the best version he'd seen and seemed the most truthful. I think it probably is the most accurate, because we could quote from the diary itself. The Anne Frank-Fonds, which controls the rights to the diary, withheld permission from many of the other adaptations, but we had the privilege of being able to use the diary, mostly for voiceovers, in ours. And that gets her distinctive voice to us; she comes alive because we're hearing her real voice.
Also, we did everything we could to make the film as truthful and accurate as possible — everything from creating an exact replica of the annex, where most of the film is shot, to getting a bookbinder to weave an exact replica of her famous tartan-covered diary. And we cover the exact span of the diary itself, from the moment when she gets the diary to the moment when the diary stops. What was very moving to me was seeing the wardrobe department, which had versions of the same clothes that the actors wore in practically every scene, but becoming shabbier; and in the case of the adults, bigger, because the adults were getting so thin; and in the case of the teenagers, smaller, because the teenagers were growing. That made it tragically real when I saw that.
Did you find it hard to imagine yourself in the traumatic situation that these eight people were enduring?
I don't think you can be traumatized for two years. You're just a normal human being in there. That's what we're trying to show in the film. Obviously, the residents of the annex had great mood swings. But there were moments of high spirits as well. They had mad passions for playing Monopoly and other games. They dressed up for celebrations. They had moments of closeness, warmth, and, in the case of Anne and Peter, infatuation; and also, of course, jealousies, naked fear, resentments, and a certain snobbishness. All human life is there.
The diary is necessarily from Anne's point of view. Did you have to read between the lines to discover aspects of life in the annex that she may have missed?
It's hugely challenging and presumptuous to give voices to people who have long since died in the most terrible circumstances. I was very conscious of this. But I wanted to give the seven other people in the annex their stories too. Although we see it from Anne's point of view and she thinks she sees everything; actually she doesn't see everything. So I had to put all the facts in context. I'll give you an example. In the diary, Anne is very resentful when Mr. Dussel, the dentist, moves into her room. Then later she mentions that she helps him when he is extracting Mrs. van Dam's tooth. I have written it so that afterwards, when they go to their two little narrow beds, instead of him saying his Hebrew prayers, which had so unnerved her the first night — because the Franks weren't observant Jews — he says something to her in a foreign language. It turns out to be Spanish, not Hebrew; he is thanking her in Spanish for helping him that day. And she discovers it's because he's learning Spanish for when he gets out of the annex after the war and plans to emigrate with his fiancée to South America. All those facts are true: he pulled out Mrs. Van Dam's tooth, Anne helped him, he prayed in Hebrew, he planned to emigrate with his fiancée. That's an example of how I took these pieces of information and reshaped them to portray the lives of these other people.
Did you make discoveries about the characters as you were writing about them?
Yes, and that's the most wonderful feeling when it happens. Quite often with adaptations, until it comes alive you're just doing jigsaw work. You're moving bits from the page onto the screen, you're shifting scenes around, you're cutting things back, and all that. But when the characters start behaving in a way that is slightly surprising to you, then you know that you are really cooking, and it gets fun.
Can you think of any examples?
Anne was annoyed that Mrs. van Dam would chastise her, and it occurred to me that Anne would probably mimic her behind her back. The others in the annex would see this and react in different ways: Anne's mother would probably disapprove, and her father might find it secretly rather funny, but hide it. And Peter, the son, would find it quite funny, but he'd be terrified that his mother would see that he found it funny. And Margot might not notice, because she was always trying to read. So from this idea, that Anne would mimic Mrs. van Dam behind her back, then like a ripple all the others responded on the page of my script in a way that reveals their true characters. What's wonderful about seeing something being filmed is that the cast and director pick up on that. And of course they're also doing stuff which you didn't even put in the script, which is even more heavenly.
Any examples of that?
For instance, Ron Cook, who plays Mr. van Dam, is the most wonderful actor, and he steals practically every scene that he's in. When his wife is giggling away to Anne and Margot about her early boyfriends, and saying, "I was an early developer," he's just lying on the bed in the corner, and murmurs, "Yeah, you can say that again." He does it in a deadpan way that brings the house down.
You've written a number of novels and film adaptations. Was it a completely new experience for you to adapt this intense work of non-fiction?
I'd never adapted non-fiction before. The last thing I did was Pride and Prejudice [starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen], which was another iconic and much loved book. In fact, The Diary of Anne Frank and Pride and Prejudice are two of the most popular books in the world! So it was a daunting experience for me. The difference is, of course, that Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is a fictional character, and I didn't have responsibility to her in the same way as I do to Anne Frank. Also, Jane Austin has shaped the most wonderful plot. While by its nature, a diary is one damn thing after another. If you're living in an annex, it's jolly repetitive — like peeling potatoes and lavatories getting blocked. So I had to craft a plot from the raw material I had available.
Was there anything you learned from Love in a Cold Climate or Pride and Prejudice that helped you in adapting The Diary of Anne Frank?
Love in a Cold Climate [which was shown on Masterpiece] and Pride and Prejudice are very funny, and I think I was asked to do Anne Frank because I wasn't afraid to bring out the humor in the diaries. I didn't want to be solemn. It's more moving when people are behaving in a way that often makes us laugh. And Anne is certainly funny; she's terribly funny. One of my theories about writing is that if it is serious, that doesn't mean it has to be solemn. Solemnity doesn't make for great drama; it doesn't move us and engage us on every level, because life isn't like that. Life is full of ironies and silliness.
Life in the Annex
For anyone who imagines being cooped up for just a few weeks, let alone two years, there would come a point early on when you would write in your diary, "I can't stand this anymore!" Did Anne have such moments?
She did say, "I really can't stand it," quite often in the diary. But the wonderful thing that speaks for the imagination and the liberating power of art is that it was through her diary that she stayed sane. It was through her diary that she entered another world where she could escape.
Why didn't they make more use of the attic?
I actually asked that to the woman who was showing us around the Anne Frank House, because it seemed so obvious that up there you would be free; you could look out the window and have the air, the light, and the birds; you could also make a bit more noise. She pointed out that they kept thinking it was all going to end. To move up into the attic, which only had a little step ladder, would have been a huge operation. So they thought, "We'll use it as a storeroom, because this isn't going to last forever." The result was that it was free up there for Anne and Peter to have their lovely, tender romance.
Ellie Kendrick as Anne Frank
How did Ellie Kendrick get the part of Anne?
They couldn't find an Anne for ages. It was school holiday, so it was difficult because children were scattered everywhere. They had open auditions and masses of people applied, including some Japanese girls. There was nobody who was right, and they were getting absolutely panic-struck, because they had cast everybody else and they were just about to shoot. Then this divine and wonderful Ellie Kendrick popped up; she had already done some acting, and she's incredibly bright. She just walked in and that was it; they just knew it was her in that way — like falling in love.
She actually lived with me during the shoot, because they didn't want to put her in a hotel because she's so young. It was terribly funny the first day. I don't have any stair carpet, and she had very early calls to go to the studio. So on the first morning, she was thundering down the stairs while I was still asleep. That night I said to her, "Ellie, could you be a bit quieter around the house so that nobody can hear you?" And it occurred to me that that was a very good acting note: I'm telling Anne Frank to please be quiet around the house so nobody can hear her!