Colm Tóibín's 2009 novel Brooklyn, about a young Irishwoman coming of age in the 1950's, who trades the elusive pot of gold for America's streets paved with gold, is both universal and timeless. When writer Nick Hornby, best known for penning High Fidelity and About a Boy and adapting An Education and Wild for the silver screen, began work on the film version of Brooklyn, which opens Nov. 13, he could see his past come alive in title character, Eilis Lacey's epic journey.
Growing up in Redhill, Surrey, 20 miles outside of London, without even a bookstore in his vicinity, the future novelist migrated to the big city the first chance he got. SF Weekly spoke to Nick Hornby about the immigrant experience, the three things from Britain he could never leave behind, and why old-school romance still arouses us in this jaded age.
[jump] Could you describe your process of turning Brooklyn into a screenplay and how closely you worked with the author?
I began this project in 2010, and by 2011 it was in reasonable shape. Most of what happened between then and now was about funding and finding the right people. I met Colm Tóibín for a cup of tea once. I think he had just read the first or second draft, and he had given me some notes about language. He didn't give me any notes about anything else. He was very much of the mind that he trusted the producers and me and wasn't going to get involved.
When you say “notes about language,” do you mean how an Irish person would speak?
Yeah, they were so tiny that they were funny. He got me to change rations of bacon to rashers. And there was an argument about Mammy or Mummy — what was particular to that part of Ireland. I had written Mammy, and he said it should be Mummy for that particular part of Southern Ireland. When it was Saoirse Ronan's turn to play it, she said she couldn't call her mum Mummy; she would have to call her Mammy, because that's what she called her own.
You've said that you could relate Ellis's desire to leave her native country for America to your yearning to leave the suburbs outside London for the big city. What were you trying to escape?
I think John Crowley and I both felt the same way as Ellis — that we wanted her to go back to America — but we didn't want to reveal that that's what we wanted, if you know what I mean. For John it was the same reason. He always used to describe Ellis back in Ireland as the Deadly Poppy Field in The Wizard of Oz, where you don't want to go to sleep. I guess it felt a little bit like that.
My hometown didn’t have anything that I wanted in it. It didn't have a bookshop. I was 20 miles outside London. I knew I would be gone the moment I got old enough. One of the ways this movie works, I think, is an awful lot of us in the first world have left where we grew up, because there wasn’t much for us there. One of the arguments in the film is what if everything was there suddenly in the place where you grew up — would that make a difference to you? If I could give you everything you wanted, a satisfying love live, and your family — would you be able to leave the new life that you made for yourself? I think it operates on so many levels. It’s not just about Irish immigration, for sure.
Ellis's choice is a difficult one, because it's established early on that her leaving means that her sister, Rose, will have to suffer at the expense of her thriving. Is there even a right decision here?
Yes, in my mind, I think the right choice is to move forward and away and to go to this place where the opportunities are boundless. I’m talking about everything, not just money and comfort. And I think that is the right choice for all of us.
Did you ever spend any extensive time in America?
No, I never have. My dad lived there for a bit. So in my parents' divorce, I spent school holidays with him in the US. That's the closest I've come.
If you were to come here for a major period of time, which three items would you miss most?
Assuming my family is with me, number one would be my soccer team. It’s still an important part of my and my kid’s lives. I think the BBC would be a big deal for me. Especially now that we're so used to watching catch-up TV, that spending an evening watching network television in America would drive you demented. And even though I have a love-hate relationship with them, I think I’d miss our broadsheet newspapers. Yours are quite good — the news is nothing but the news and reviews are nothing but reviews — but ours tend to be more anarchic and irreverent, not serious.
Turning this heart-wrenching romance novel of sorts into a screenplay that is palatable to jaded audiences in 2015 must have been challenging.
Yeah, there's a challenge there. But the book is so delicate that you'd feel yourself [knocking] around if you were making the wrong choices. So I didn't worry about that. What I think is interesting is that our experience of this film so far is that it destroys teenagers. I already know teenage girls and girls in their 20's who've been back whenever they can to multiple screenings.
It made me realize that one of the most beloved books of young girls is Pride and Prejudice, because they feel a version of that story inside themselves. But the world doesn't allow them to see it reflected in any way, because of social media or because of the kinds of pop culture that they're presented with. So when they find something that reflects those feelings back at them, quite often it's something like a period movie or a book written long ago. But those feelings are apparent in young people and they do not get a chance to explore them, which is why I think this movie is working for them.
Why is romance not outwardly visible in 2015?
I think there isn't an idiomatic language for it, neither culturally nor personally. What's interesting is that eventually young people have to do what they've always done throughout history, which is meet somebody, fall in love with them, and hope to maintain a life with them. That central drive hasn't changed, which means there comes a point where you have to go through all of that stuff: heartbreak and falling in love and hoping someone falls in love with you back. No matter how many times you’re on Facebook or Tinder, that only postpones the moment where you have to commit to somebody in some way.