Michael Cunningham and Susan Minot Talk ‘Evening’

Hugh Dancy and Claire Danes in Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

Tonight at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, novelists-turned-screenwriters Michael Cunningham and Susan Minot will discuss how they adapted Minot's 1999 novel Evening for the Lajos Koltais film, opening June 29. We got to them first. After the jump, Bilge Ebiri speaks to both about the art of adaptation.

At first blush, Evening seems like a simple tale: Ann Grant Lord (played by Vanessa Redgrave in her later years, and Claire Danes in her younger), a terminally ill woman, relives several pivotal days in her youth when she met and fell in love with dashing young doctor Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson) during her best friend’s wedding off the coast of Maine. So why did it take eight years to bring it to the screen?

Minot: Oddly enough, I myself met producer Jeff Sharp (Boys Don't Cry, You Can Count on Me) at a mutual friend’s wedding in Nairobi. His office was eight blocks away from me in New York, but I’d never met him before. He told me he loved Evening. I told him that Disney had optioned it originally, even before it was published, and I had written a script for them. So Jeff had to negotiate with them for the rights. After that, I worked on probably fifteen different versions, with different directors, who I can’t name.

After years of development, Sharp enlisted the aid of Cunningham, with whom the producer had worked on A Home at the End of the World.

Cunningham: I told Jeff to ask if it would be okay with Susan for me to make unspecified but possibly dramatic changes. If she has reservations, I said, I’ll pass. Because the last thing I wanted to be is another one of those guys who fucked up another novelist’s book. And Susan was incredibly generous for pretty much handing it over to me. I’d like to think this is pretty much what I would have done. I guess it’s what I did when David Hare adapted The Hours. I reread the book once and then put it aside. There’s no reason to hire me if my job is to just do what Susan did, only in a movie.

One of the biggest challenges was finding a way to cinematically represent the inner thoughts of a dying Ann, a major focus of the novel.

Cunningham: This is one of the big shocks for any novelist who tries to write a movie: “Right — no internal monologues. Everything has to be rendered dramatically, doesn’t it?” We get around it in the film by focusing on what’s happening around the dying Ann. In the movie, older Ann, played by the impossibly fabulous Vanessa Redgrave, is attended to by two daughters, played by Natasha Richardson and Toni Collette. There’s also a nurse. Between those people, and a certain special appearance by Meryl Streep, we play out her regrets and her uncertainties and her fears.

Minot: In general, my own experience of writing an adaptation of Evening gave me a chance to get into different parts of the book. As the author of the original story, I knew a lot about this whole world: I wasn’t trying just to look at the book and see what to take out. So I went to some of those places that might have been more cinematic, but which might not have been included in the book. It’s like going back to the raw material.

Cunningham: One of the reasons why we read and love novels is they can contain just about anything you want to put into them. If that 150-page digression into the Crimean War illuminates the story in some way — go ahead. But a regular movie that’s about two hours long translates into a screenplay of 112 pages. So the population of the novel had to be cut by at least half.

The most significant change was the promotion of minor character Buddy Wittenborn (Hugh Dancy) to a veritable third lead.

Cunningham: Buddy is in the novel pretty much just long enough to get run over by a car and killed. In my version, he becomes more significant: part of a kind of love triangle with Anna and Harris. I was very happy when Susan saw a draft and approved it.

Minot: Writing an adaptation is not so much a collaboration as it is a series of steps. You’re basically creating a blueprint for something else. Michael had to make it his own.

Cunningham: Is there anything from the novel I really wish I could have kept in the film? Oh, yeah — the great sex scene between Ann and Harris! Susan Minot writes about sex better than anybody. But in our film the camera turns away right when things heat up between Claire and Patrick. As it must.

Evening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, June 12, 7:30p.m. [Lincoln Center]