Julian Barnes: 'I told the film-makers to throw my book against a wall'

Ahead of the film version of of Barnes’s Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, he explains why he asked the film-makers to be brutal with his text

The Sense of an Ending is a short, sharp novel about a man who tells his own story and then comes to doubt it. Written by Julian Barnes, it’s a book in two halves (construction; deconstruction) as ageing Tony Webster is forced to revise his account in the light of complicating new evidence and unquiet old memories. “How often do we tell our own life story?” Tony wonders. “How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts?” Our history, he concludes, is merely the story we tell. Others spin their own versions and the truth is elusive.

Now, six years after it won the Man Booker prize, The Sense of an Ending is being told again, courtesy of a plush new BBC Films adaptation. Or, to put it less charitably, Barnes has lost control of his story. His prose has been adjusted and embellished. Sly cuts have been made. Given the book’s subject matter, this seems rather fitting.

One spring afternoon, I visit Barnes in his north London home. Tea and polenta cake have been set out on the table. In person, the author is cerebral and exacting (which I had expected) and prone to explosive giggles (which I had not). He laughs when he recalls reading an early draft of the script that didn’t appear to contain a single line of his original dialogue. He’d urged the film-makers to betray him. They took him at his word.

“But then I don’t think a writer should sit on the shoulders of the director,” he insists. “They’re not making a memorial. They’re making something for an art form that has its own aesthetic and set of rules. So they should throw my book against the wall, pick up the pieces and then put them together in a different way.”

On balance, I’m in favour of faithless adaptations: ones that set about their subject matter like creative vandals, freestyle and irreverent. I like what Stanley Kubrick did with Lolita and The Shining. I even like the especially woolly affairs: Spike Jonze’s weird extrapolation of Where the Wild Things Are or Wes Anderson’s skittish take on Fantastic Mr Fox. Surely the text is just a blueprint, whether it was written by a studio hack or James Joyce. And surely the respective mediums communicate in different ways (movies show and books tell). Besides, in the case of Barnes’s novel, what alternative was there? The Sense of an Ending gives us the interior monologue of an unreliable narrator. It folds the past with the present; it’s about the fallibility of memory. The material appears expressly designed to thwart a straight film conversion.

Billy Howle and Freya Mavor and the young Tony and Veronica in The Sense of an Ending.
Billy Howle and Freya Mavor as the young Tony and Veronica in The Sense of an Ending. Photograph: PR

The film is directed by Ritesh Batra and scripted by the playwright Nick Payne. It shuffles present-day action with 1960s flashbacks as retired, peaceable Tony (Jim Broadbent) revisits his relationship with Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), an ex-lover whose significance he has sought to downplay and dismiss. Purists should note that the bones of the story remain largely the same. But changes have been made and these steer Barnes’s narrative along a slightly sunnier path. The book memorably concluded in a state of disarray, with Tony stripped bare. Its closing line was, “There is great unrest”. The film, by contrast, bows out with new life, fresh hope, an implied spiritual rebirth. The Sense of an Ending, in short, changes the damn ending.

“Yes, the tone of the film is more positive,” Barnes says. “The ending, certainly, is much more optimistic. I think that’s down to the nature of cinema as opposed to literature. But it’s also because it was made by men who are much younger than me. Ritesh is in his 30s. Nick Payne is, too. And the young are more optimistic than the old.”

Books speak one language; films another. The novel, perhaps, is fundamentally subjective and introverted (written by one person to be read by another). Whereas cinema at least purports to be objective and extrovert – to show things as they are and to speak to people en masse. This naturally shapes the type of stories they like to tell.

“It seems to me that truthful fiction often ends ambivalently or pessimistically,” Barnes says. “Film, on the whole, likes to give a clear answer, a clear ending. And films believe in this awful thing: redemption. I don’t believe in redemption and would never write a book where the character is redeemed.”

He thinks this through, prodding at his cake. “Literature will always exist and thrive, because no other art form captures the inner life – the soul, the heart, the mind – so well as the novel. But I do like the way cinema cuts between past and present. A visual flashback is so much more emotional and powerful than a prose flashback. But look, we have to give film some advantages over the novel. They do a much better car chase.” He laughs at the image and returns to his cake. He says, “I really must write a car chase one day.”

When embarking on a screen adaptation, Jim Broadbent is always at pains to read the source novel first. “It solves all your research in one blast,” he says. “If Dickens tells you what the character looks like and sounds like, you think, ‘OK, I’ll go with that.’” He had read Nicholas Nickleby years before he made the film. It was a similar deal with the adaptation of Cloud Atlas. “And then when I did Vanity Fair, it was an excuse to read a classic novel I had somehow never got around to reading in the past.”

True to form, Broadbent studied The Sense of an Ending before receiving the script. He loved the book and he loved Tony, too. He found himself identifying with the character’s struggles, his vulnerability, his rampant self-delusion. So he relished playing the part. “Except that then, of course, there’s always a fair bit of regret. You sit down and think, ‘Oh, I wish they kept that bit in,’ only because I loved the book.” Broadbent sighs. “I was all for keeping the film as pessimistic as possible. But you have to remind yourself that the film’s not the book. If you try to be faithful, you’re always going to fail.”

By now, I’m starting to view the whole process as a series of betrayals. Or a relay-race of loyalties; or competing versions of the truth. Payne explains that The Sense of an Ending was his first movie script. That made him the crew’s least experienced member. He tells me his initial loyalty was to Barnes. After that it shifted to the producers – his paymasters – and then finally to the director. “I watch the finished version and see pieces of me in it,” he says. “But it’s definitely Ritesh’s film.”

Payne is best known for his play Constellations, a glorious two-hander that opened at London’s Royal Court in 2012. He was first drawn to Barnes’s novel because it reminded him of Nicolas Roeg films such as Bad Timing or Don’t Look Now in the way it plays with memory and time. But he thinks the material is malleable, and that that is surely part of the point. “Why even make a film if the ultimate aim is to render it as a Xerox of the novel?” he says. “It has to work on screen first and foremost. Otherwise stick with the book.”

I mention the film’s upbeat ending and Payne barks a short laugh. He asks whether I have spoken to the director and I tell him I haven’t. “Speak to Ritesh,” he advises. “I have to be careful here. Yes, maybe the ending is partly down to me being that bit more romantic than Julian. Maybe there’s a commercial pressure there too. But in an ideal world I’d have wanted the ending left hanging, everything left in limbo. I wrote a slightly different ending, let’s put it that way. Ask Ritesh about the ending.”

Ritesh Batra is an Indian film-maker, recently gone global. In 2013, he scored a break-out hit with The Lunchbox, a gorgeous, lovelorn, Brief Encounter-style tale that charted the chaste relationship between an office drone and an unhappy housewife. The Lunchbox, he says, came from a primal place. But The Sense of an Ending was personal, too. Specifically, the book stirred memories of the years he spent as a child, sharing a bedroom with his elderly grandfather. “I’d sit up at night listening to him talking about his life and his regrets and who was to blame. These people were dead but they still mattered to him, still existed for him. He was still fighting old battles.” The character of Tony reminded him of his grandfather.

Harmonious relationships … screenwriter Nick Payne with the director, Ritesh Batra.
Harmonious relationships … screenwriter Nick Payne with the director, Ritesh Batra. Photograph: PR

The way Batra sees it, a screen adaptation is a series of interpretations. Payne interprets Barnes’s book, he interprets Payne’s script and the actors, in turn, interpret his direction. He says, “I’ve always felt that films should be cousins of books. Siblings can kill each other; there’s always a rivalry there. But cousins are better. It’s a more harmonious relationship.”

I ask about the ending. It’s not Barnes’s, it’s not Payne’s, so it must surely be Batra’s. The director casts his mind back; he can’t recall the exact details. He explains that Payne originally scripted a final scene that was very clever: a hurried conversation, one last revelation. “Nick did something ingenious,” he said. “But I felt it was quite a jump for the audience – and Tony – to put two and two together. It was too much, too neat, so we changed it a little. But only a little.”

So the director has the final word? “Oh absolutely,” says Batra. “The buck stops with the director. That’s the nature of the business.”

I like Batra’s description of his film as a set of interpretations; like a game of Chinese whispers in which the original message takes on different meanings as it passes down the line. Again, given Barnes’s story, this seems poetic justice of sorts. Poor Tony Webster says one thing; his former friends say another. The author tells his version; the film-makers duly rewrite it. And if the endings are different, maybe that’s fitting, too. It leaves book and film locked in conversation, two competing accounts in a state of perpetual unrest.

The Sense of an Ending is released on 14 April.


Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Only Story by Julian Barnes review – an exquisite look at love
Barnes deftly explores time and memory in his latest novel, about an older man recalling the romance that defined his life

Kate Clanchy

26, Jan, 2018 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes review – Shostakovich in fear
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: grim humour abounds in this deftly written fantasia on the life of the composer in Stalin’s Soviet Union

Nicholas Lezard

03, Jan, 2017 @9:30 AM

Article image
Julian Barnes: ‘Do you expect Europe to cut us a good deal? It’s so childish’
His new book The Man in the Red Coat may be set in 19th-century Paris, but the Booker prize winner sees clear parallels with our lurid times. He talks nationalism, grief and writing ‘filth’

Lisa Allardice

26, Oct, 2019 @9:00 AM

Pulse by Julian Barnes - review
Rachel Cusk praises the compassion and truth of Julian Barnes's painstaking short stories

Rachel Cusk

08, Jan, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Lissa Evans: how my novel about film-making was turned into a film
My wartime story, Their Finest Hour and a Half, has been adapted for the big screen – watching actors playing actors and a fake film crew being directed by a real one was surreal

Lissa Evans

22, Apr, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Freedom, revolt and pubic hair: why Antonioni’s Blow-Up thrills 50 years on
The flawed but absorbing 60s movie about a photographer who unwittingly captures a murder scene still poses important questions

Anthony Quinn

10, Mar, 2017 @12:00 PM

Article image
Good book, great film

When he was asked to be guest director for a festival dedicated to films based on books, Jonathan Coe set out to disprove the adage that great literature makes terrible movies

Jonathan Coe

01, Apr, 2011 @10:08 AM

Article image
After The Maltese Falcon: how film noir took flight
Ushering in an uneasy world of femmes fatales and shady sleuths, The Maltese Falcon marked the beginnings of film noir. Seventy-five years on, how can this genre speak to our times?

Phil Hoad

28, Oct, 2016 @2:00 PM

Article image
Julian Barnes on suburbia: ‘I have no sense of a great Tufnell Park novel inside me'
The author explains his affinity with ‘a non-place full of non-traditions’, having lived in the suburbs of London’s inner west, Middlesex and Surrey

Julian Barnes

03, Feb, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – review

Julian Barnes's Booker-longlisted novella is a meditation on ageing, memory and regret. By Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan

26, Jul, 2011 @4:15 PM