Joe Dunthorne on ‘Submarine’
June 3, 2011 | by Tom Bunstead
Novelist Joe Dunthorne’s delightfully British debut, Submarine, is told from the point of view of teenager Oliver Tate, whose twin mission is to lose his virginity by his sixteenth birthday and to salvage his parents’ ailing marriage. The film version, which was adapted by Richard Ayoade, was picked up by Harvey Weinstein and Ben Stiller and opens today in the U.S. I spoke with Dunthorne not long ago about his experience working with Ayoade and the process of adaptation.
Harvey Weinstein is notorious for cutting films to make them more palatable. Have there been any significant changes to the film ahead of the American release?
One thing they’ve added is a card at the start saying something along the lines of “Dear Americans, I am Oliver Tate. I come from a country called Wales, which is near England. You may have heard of famous Welsh people like Catherine Zeta Jones and Anthony Hopkins. You have never invaded Wales, and for that we are thankful” and so on. It’s a kind of introductory card, which is written by Richard Ayoade, the director, at Mr. Weinstein’s suggestion, and the idea seems to be that it needed signposting as a comedy. Whether that’s a judgment on the book, or the film, or American audiences, who knows!
At least they didn’t do a Trainspotting and subtitle it …
The Welsh accents weren’t quite thick enough to warrant that. Trainspotting is an interesting link though, because it showed that something may be key to the novel but that doesn’t necessarily make it key to the film. You know how in the book of Trainspotting there’s that absolutely crucial scene where Begbie meets his father down by the train tracks—which is where the title comes from—well, Danny Boyle did away with that. There was something I felt was key in Submarine the novel, namely the revenge of Zoe, the fat girl whom Oliver and his friends bully, but with the film script, it suddenly became expendable. In the book, it’s when Oliver gets his comeuppance for being a bit of a shit, so it’s important in terms of his “coming of age,” but for the film it felt too peripheral.
What you end up asking yourself is, is there room in a film for something that sits at that sort of tangent to the narrative? A scene that’s somehow faraway from the story but remains important. Maybe not. Maybe it’s something to do with the linearity of film, or maybe simply the two or so hours of viewing time doesn’t allow for those sorts of digressions.
Did you find the experience of being adapted to the screen useful for what you’re writing now?
Absolutely, I think so. It’s hard to ever have much distance from what you’re engaged in writing, so it was great to have someone come and say, This is the essence of your story. With my second novel, Wild Abandon, which I’m finalizing at the moment, I wanted to write something that was more conscious of plot, if not strictly a page turner, and it was very useful to work having seen the essence of Submarine’s plot extracted for the film—“the real story,” as they say.
Going back to Trainspotting, the film is so much more pacey and plot-driven, with the heistlike subplot thrown in, that it becomes quite unlike the novel, which is fractured, very higgledy-piggledy. I’d say the same goes for the film version of Submarine versus the novel: in both cases, it seems key that the directors were bold enough to push out from the novels—in order to make good films, primarily, but also to capture something of the original. A slavish attempt to exactly represent the source text on film always seems more of a betrayal, more unfaithful, somehow.
How involved were you in the adaptation?
I was a script consultant. But because Richard Ayoade and I had a good relationship, he ended up—very sweetly, very conscientiously—bypassing protocol a little bit and including me in a lot of decisions. In the beginning, we talked about all the possible directions the film could take, and I was a little involved in casting, too.
First of all, we watched a lot of films together in his attic, looking at good versus bad voice-over. We established pretty early on that there was no real way around the film needing a voice-over, although it can be a risky maneuver onscreen—the potential for clunkiness and the fact that it can just smack of laziness. So we watched Woody Allen movies, we watched Goodfellas, which has an amazing voice-over, Taxi Driver, brilliant voice-over—so brilliant that if you think back to Taxi Driver, not having seen it for a while, you probably don’t think of it having a voice-over at all—which is a mark of its success, because it all feels like a seamless part of the representation of the protagonist’s character.
It’s funny to think of Taxi Driver as an influence on a quirky British teen film like Submarine.
Absolutely, but it’s definitely there, at least in terms of our decisions about what to retain from the text. What you notice in Taxi Driver is that the voice-over is far more about character development than the heavy hand of the director coming in and trying to move the story along. That’s why it works. It’s used to color an internal life that is very separate to the character you are seeing interact outwardly.
Do you know why Richard Ayoade went for the distinctive look, almost French New Wave?
There’s the fact he loves older films, and the French New Wave in particular, but also it has a lot to do with how Oliver views himself, which is in the pretentious tradition of French film and of romantic figures. You just can’t have a romantic duffel-coated young man filmed on digital, somehow! Richard felt it had to be shot on a particular type of stock.
There’s also a really beautiful touch, in that most of the action in the film takes place in the time before school and after school, so they did most of their shooting in what is known, I found out, as “magic hour.” There’s that soft light that makes everyone more beautiful but also fits in with the idea that, at that age, your key experiences happen in this limbo zone between home and school.
So I suppose the whole aesthetic is led by Oliver’s pretentious tastes, but that so happens also to be a very beautiful way of shooting.
That maybe overlaps with something you said in another interview about your writing, about wanting to avoid sentimentality, but not just for the sake of it, not just to be hip. Is there perhaps something in the filming technique—kind of pretentious, but also in the end kind of beautiful—that matches those concerns?
Writing, you’re taught, is the battle against cliché, and that you should be totally ruthless in stripping away all hackneyed phrasing and sentimentality, and I do agree with all that. But there’s a time when you think, Have I earned the right to be genuine, and to shrug off irony, cynicism, hipness possibly and just be a little bit earnest? Culturally, British people are not good at those moments of emotional honesty, and I’m certainly not good at them, so I felt I was also working against those tendencies. Writing can feel like a search for a way to guiltlessly allow those moments—common moments, universal moments, whatever you want to call it (and after all, coming-of-age stories must take some of their popularity from the fact that everyone has to go through their own coming of age)—but to not feel like you’re manipulating the reader.
Paddy Considine plays Oliver’s mother’s old flame, who tempts her into having an affair. In the novel, he’s more of a rural, alfalfa-munching hippie, whereas in the film he becomes a more modern-type of New Age guy, a motivational speaker who believes that people’s aura is visible. He’s almost channeling something of Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia. How comfortable were you with that sort of change?
Very comfortable. It came about through a conversation between Richard and Paddy. Paddy seems to be the kind of actor who you go to with ideas, and he would prefer to develop them rather than be told exactly what to do. With all actors you want to give them the space to bring something to the work, but it seems particularly the case with Paddy, so he and Richard developed the character together.
I don’t think there’s any point in thinking the film can do exactly what the book did, so you might as well think of it as the original text’s evil twin. They may be related, but they have very different attitudes.