On ‘Barney’s Version’: A Confession



A Confession
David Bezmozgis | February 23, 2011

Mordecai Richler.

Hi Richard,

Maybe the best way to begin is to say that I have a vague recollection of standing in the very tiny kitchen of my very tiny studio apartment in Hancock Park, Los Angeles, circa 2000, and talking to you on the phone about a project you said you were in line to direct. I don’t know if you remember this at all; it was a long time ago. I’m convinced it happened, but feel free to correct me. However, before you correct me, I should tell you that, in my recollection, I was very impressed, and even jealous, to think that you would get to direct Barney’s Version. I must have read the book by then, as any self-respecting Canadian would have. (The book published originally in 1997 or 1998, I think.) Mordecai Richler had been a literary hero of mine. He was a Canadian Jew, and he felt to me like the only Canadian Jew who had managed to write movingly, vibrantly, and humorously about Jews in Canada. (Today, I’d revise that statement a little.) Now I was also a Canadian Jew, and I cultivated literary and cinematic ambitions. Basically, what I’m saying is I thought: Who does this Richard Lewis think he is to make a movie from Richler’s book? Yeah, he’s a nice guy and he’s done some directing, but seriously, what are his qualifications? I should be the one to do it!

I’ll have you know that I no longer feel this way.

But what my little confession attests to—other than the meanness of my own character—is the seductive desire to turn books we love into movies. I don’t even think the seduction is limited to people who work in movies. How often have you heard someone who, after having read a book, declares that it would make a great movie? There’s an entire division of the film industry devoted to this quixotic practice, brilliantly dubbed Book-to-Film. But I wonder why it is we feel this compulsion? Why, after reading certain books, are we not satisfied to leave things where they are—forever and exclusively on the page? Does it have to do with some refusal to accept that the story has ended and that our experience with it is finite? Or is it because, having fallen in love with the story, we want to participate in it, to become more intimately involved in its peculiar magic? So I suppose that’s the general question, to which I’d be curious to know your answer. And it leads to the more specific and relevant question, which is: what was it about Barney’s Version that made you want to adapt it for the screen?