You're probably not supposed to walk up to the lead actor on a film set and poke him in the chest with your finger, but when you've lived with a fictional character in your head for 10 years and suddenly there he is all flesh-and-blood, sweatered-up, and Aidan Quinn-y, it's a bit jarring – so you do what any rational person would do: Check to make sure he's real.
Having your novel turned into a movie is a fascinating experience. When my 2002 novel Stay was being cast and the film locations were being selected I didn't really figure into the conversation – which is why it came as such a shock, arriving on set in the far west of Ireland last summer, to find places that had once existed in my head had suddenly sprouted floors, walls and ceilings; places now inhabited by characters who seemed to have walked fully formed out of my imagination.
Sets based on fictional settings are strange places; strange because they are no longer fictional, they are factual, substantial and full of stuff that can be picked up and put down. The rural cottage the filmmakers used to house my film's protagonists "Dermot" and "Abbey" (played by Aidan Quinn and Taylor Schilling) appeared totally lived in. There were no pressboard walls to separate the fictional world from some sawdusty backstage area where props could be stored and a rickety catering table set up. Instead there were worn wood tables, chairs with faded upholstery; there was a half-read book on a messy desk, cushions with the pressed shape of a back in them.
There's a hint of Freud's "uncanny" in the act of wandering through a cottage where a fictional character you invented now "lives" – it's uncomfortably familiar and uncomfortably strange all at the same time. The difference between the familiar and strange having to do, in this case, with volume: In a novel an author might populate a cottage like the one belonging to my protagonist ex-professor with a few dozen things – a sofa, a bed, chairs, a bookshelf, a framed page of a medieval manuscript, a phone, the dog's bowl, kitchen dishes – whatever it is the character interacts with usefully or noticeably in the course of the story along with a few crucial objects that might suggest "who the character is" to the reader.
Imagination comes alive
When I was in the process of writing Stay the cottage appeared in my imagination as a dimly lit arrangement of rooms in which objects manifested themselves as needed. If Dermot and Abbey were arguing (it's a love story so they do that a lot) and Abbey decided she was leaving, a backpack would appear in my head, as would the dresser and the drawers she emptied her clothes out of. The actual film set – a cottage on the island of Lettermore – had all the objects I'd filled my fictional cottage with and about 1,000 more. The shelves were stuffed with hundreds of books I'd never fully imagined; there was a stained-glass lamp, ceramic figures, fossils; a frayed rug. There was a stunning painting of a horse and rider I had not conjured but which suited the character perfectly. This is perhaps where the idea of the uncanny feels wrong, because where in the uncanny one senses some kind of cognitive dissonance, I was lucky enough to have a director and set designers who really seemed to get the character and the place. Walking into that cottage wasn't dissonant at all; it was actually more like arriving at some exotic and longed-for destination to find that it matched its postcard exactly.
So what do you do when the world inside your head suddenly appears outside of it? You act normal. You chat up the producer and the set designer and try not to get giddy because you feel like you made a whole world out of a few thin slips of paper. You walk around and do whatever the equivalent of poking the actor is: Run your hand over the spines of books, stroke the knit sweater hanging over the chair, test the heft of a paperweight, all the while trying not to fall in love with the character who lives in the cottage because of his taste in art, penchant for artifacts and shelf full of Seamus Heaney (because deep inside you know that that is creepily like falling in love with yourself). Instead you think about what this feeling is and how it's been described throughout history: You try to remember if the Bible talks about "the word made flesh" or "the flesh made word"; you think about Freud, and then about the philosopher Derrida's "undecideability" – his dismantling of dichotomies like the inside/outside one you're struggling with here.
Of course turning something that's essentially immaterial into something material is more complicated than taking a sentence out of a novel and making it into a high-backed chair for the lovely Taylor Schilling to sit on. There are dozens of people involved in the act of translation – enough people that, as in the kids' game of "telephone," there are about 100 ways things can go wrong, though "wrong" is obviously subjective. What I imagined when I wrote Stay and what Wiebke von Carolsfeld (Stay's wonderful and talented screenwriter-director) has reimagined cannot be the same. Even if the forms didn't demand different things (film scripts have to externalize the internal), different readers do, which is to say that the angle will always be a bit different. Lionel Shriver, who wrote the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, once said of Lynne Ramsay, who directed the film version, that "[f]or a director – particularly a writer-director – there's a process by which you need to make your material your own, which means wrestling away possession of your story from its author." As with most adaptations, the film and the novel version of Stay do diverge in terms of plot, character and dialogue – but "wrestling" might be the wrong word to describe the process. A narrative isn't like a toy truck two kids can tug at in a sandbox; it's incorporeal, it's something that the author already knows is up for grabs in every encounter with the reader.
In the 1969 essay Phenomenology of Reading, Belgian philosopher Georges Poulet talks about how books are objects, and how the extraordinary aspect of books is the falling away of the barrier between the content of the book and its reader. Of the act of reading a book, he writes, "You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside." Poulet goes on to say that in reading, "the book is no longer a material reality. It has become a series of words, of images, of ideas which in their turn begin to exist." In many ways a filmmaker is the ideal reader because the images and ideas that begin to exist for them as a reader have the power to become images and ideas that can exist for millions of viewers.
Externality shapes narrative
It goes without saying that before there is an "inside the author's head," there is a very real externality that helps shape the narrative. Part of what made being on the set of Wiebke's version of Stay seem so eerily similar to the world I'd imagined was the fact that she chose to locate so many of the film's settings in the very places I'd been thinking of when I was writing and researching the novel. Spiddal is a small village outside Galway that juts up against the North Atlantic. When I was 18 and 19 and living in Dublin, it was my favourite place in the country. The cottage that inspired Dermot's cottage was a real whitewashed thatch structure just outside of town. The pub the director ended up filming in was called Hughes, a two-roomed, low-ceilinged pub that had been my watering hole of choice. It was the kind of pub that never seemed to be trying to please anyone but the locals. This is probably why I used Hughes as the pub in the novel – even going so far as to make the rookie mistake of failing to change its name in the book. Walking onto the set in Hughes then, and seeing Aidan Quinn sitting at the bar looking every inch the Dermot-sitting-in-Hughes of my imagination, was like watching an old and blurry film come sharply into focus, though having "Dermot" step out of the frame to come over and say, "So you're the writer? How's it going?" was wholly unexpected.
The conceit that writers can create real worlds is an idea implicit in almost all meta-fiction and one that's found expression in films like 2006's Stranger Than Fiction and last year's Ruby Sparks, where a writer (played by Paul Dano) controls a real-life woman he's created through the words he types about her. Of course his awareness of these powers doesn't come breezily; there's no normal about it. When "the author" sees Ruby in the flesh for the first time, he ducks behind a wall, he freaks out; he cowers.
Halfway through the day at Hughes I made my way to the back room where the extras were milling about, waiting for a scene in which they'd be needed. I sat down next to an elderly gentleman in a tweed cap; he reminded me immediately of the character in the novel who gets all the best lines, a barfly called Conneely. We chatted a minute about the weather, the changes in the village over the years and the movie. I introduced myself by my first name and asked him his. He tipped his cap. "Joe," he said quietly, "Joe Conneely."
In the end, it isn't just the experience of watching one's inside world become an outside world that's abnormal – although having a man in a tweed cap scare the bejesus out of you because you briefly forgot that you raided the Spiddal phonebook a decade ago in order to furnish your chorus of villagers with local surnames is an unusual experience – it's the fact that it works that's strange; that every day human beings conjure stuff up and every day other people manage to somehow access it. It seems normal to say to an author "I loved your book," and for some authors it might not seem unusual to hear such a thing, but let's just think for a second about how extraordinary it is that worlds made out of words and sentences and ideas can be transplanted; how extraordinary it is that every day readers read books by writers and writers meet those readers and we behave rationally instead of jumping up and down at the marvel of it all. Poulet calls the act of reading, of thinking the thoughts of another as if they were your own, "astonishing." That such an act might go one step further and manifest in a cinematic form is simply another iteration in the marvelous shared process of imagining.
Stay screens at TIFF Sept. 11 at 10 p.m., at Isabel Bader Theatre, and Sept. 13 at 9 a.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1. Aislinn Hunter's new novel, The World Before Us, will be published by Doubleday in 2014.