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Possession: the Movie

A.S. Byatt is no stranger to having her work adapted for the screen, but 2001 will be a bumper year for the Booker Prize winner.

Philip French


Next year will be an interesting one for A.S. Byatt and her fans, with foreign directors taking a lively interest in her work.

The American director Philip Haas, whose Angels & Insects (an adaptation of Dame Antonia's novella, Morpho Eugenia) was shown in competition at Cannes five years ago, is preparing a version of its companion novella of Victorian cultural life. The Conjugal Angel, to be called The Seance, will possibly star Helen Mirren as Emily Tennyson, the Poet Laureate's wife.

Meanwhile, the Australian filmmaker George Miller, who was pleased and astonished to hear that Byatt was a great admirer of his Mad Max movies, is working on an adaptation of her adult fairy story, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye.

But the movie I'm really looking forward to is Neil LaBute's Possession, based on Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel. This marvellous novel, deceptively subtitled 'A Romance' but the kind of thing that gives postmodernism a good name, has parallel plots and is about two late twentieth-century academics who live through and fight over the lives of a pair of Victorian poets, Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash.

It's a fiendishly difficult book to adapt, mainly because it's very literary (letters and poems, some 10 pages long, are part of its texture), but partly because for the past decade it's been taught in universities around the world, and a very discerning audience will be awaiting it.

The film has been on the stocks for some years, and there have been rumours of unsuccessful scripts, of Jane Campion being a possible director, and Sean Connery playing the Browningesque Ash. Now it's in post-production after location shooting in England and France, with Gwyneth Paltrow (sporting another English accent) and LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart as the present-day writers, and Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle as the Victorians.

LaBute's three previous films - In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbours and Nurse Betty - show him to be a man of literary bent with a strong interest in language; early in his career, he had a graduate fellowship to study at the Royal Court in London, so he's no stranger to this country.

Dame Antonia, though not involved in the scripting or production, has apparently taken a lively interest in the movie, and has from time to time tendered advice. On a visit to the set, she was very impressed by the look of the film and the work of the production designer, and is pleased that the ending remains that of the novel.

'You get the feeling of people working on something they're excited about,' she told me. 'You never know, of course, how things will turn out, but the auguries are good and I'm looking forward to seeing Possession in the summer.'


From The Observer 31/12/2000

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