Sunday 3 November 2013

How I Live Now — the Novel

I recently posted about the film adaptation of How I Live Now and mentioned it was based on a novel by Meg Rosoff. I was so impressed with the movie that I picked up a copy of the book at the first opportunity. 

The process of turning prose fiction into film is fascinating. Sometimes it can go horribly wrong, misrepresenting and demeaning the source material. For an example of that, just look at any of the misbegotten movies derived from Elmore Leonard's crime novels prior to the excellent Get Shorty.

At other times, films can stick remarkably close to the books and succeed brilliantly: Fat City, Deliverance, John Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon.

But the oddest situation is where the movie departs wildly from the original book, yet somehow brilliantly captures its essence. A classic example would be LA Confidential.

And that's the case with How I Live Now.

If I hadn't read the novel I wouldn't have realised what a superb job the screenwriters (Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and Penelope Skinner) did of reinventing it. For a start, they've very sensibly boiled down the number of protagonists. In the film there are now only two brothers. In the book there are three, including Osbert, a character so unmemorable that even the novelist seems anxious to be shot of him.

Instead the movie gives us a friend of the family Joe, played by Danny McEvoy a well rounded character with his own developed backstory who takes up some of the slack for the missing brother and also very effectively stands in for a character with a tragic fate who is introduced late in the book. He is sort of an all purpose replacement.

Most crucially, the screenplay gives us a more coherent and organised picture of the novel's shadowy war that befalls the characters in England and — very wisely I think — junks the whole telepathic angle of the book. Meg Rosoff has conceived Daisy's British cousins as a family of mind readers who also have a supernatural link with animals — the latter idea survives in a subtle form in a couple of scenes in the movie.

The problem with giving the kids ESP and then springing World War 3 on them is that we have extraordinary events happening to extraordinary people. And that's just a little too extraordinary.

Also missing from the film are some of the book's tropes of teenage anguish du jour. In the novel Daisy has an eating disorder and Edmond ends up self-harming. Again, I think the screenwriters were canny in what they left out.

In fact, comparing it to the original text, How I Live Now seems all the more remarkable. It's a magnificent movie.

All of which is not to run down the quality of Meg Rosoff's novel, which scores in an entirely different way. It has a splendid tone of wise ass humour which is faultlessly maintained throughout, by way of the voice of its narrator, the cynically amusing Daisy. This is combined with a vigorous gift for description.

When Daisy first meets Edmond she says he had "hair that looks like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night." Before long she and Edmond are falling in love and there is "a feeling flying between us in a crazy jagged way like a bird caught in a room."

But soon they are separated by the war and Daisy is a refugee on the run with Edmond's sister Piper, hiding in the woods and sleeping by day until "we woke up sweaty and anxious."

Together Daisy and Piper encounter the same atrocity so unforgettably evoked in the film, in a farmyard now deserted except for opportunistic foxes. But the book differs in that they also find their pet baby goat in the barn, where he is starved beyond recovery. Daisy's solution puts this book forever beyond the pale of teenage chick lit: "so I covered him with a grain sack and shot him in the head."

The novel differs substantially from the film but they are worthy companion pieces. Meg Rosoff's book is a striking, vivid story of adolescents surviving a future war, told in a memorably hard boiled style:"staying alive was what we did to pass the time."

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads.)

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