Amis the Unadaptable

  • Themes: Culture

A spectacularly cinematic writer, Martin Amis has only now found the screen treatment he deserved.

Author Martin Amis at home. Photographed by David Sandison.
Author Martin Amis at home. Photographed by David Sandison. Credit: Independent / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1999, Martin Amis published a short story about Hollywood called ‘Career Move’ in his collection Heavy Water. It had an ingenious, very Amis-ian central conceit; he depicted a world in which the put-upon would-be screenwriter, Alistair, impoverished and desperate, would send screenplays with titles like Offensive from Quasar 13 to largely uninterested editors for inclusion in unread pamphlets, while the vastly successful poet Luke is trying to sell his hot new poem – entitled, simply, ‘Sonnet’ – for a huge amount of money. Amis had a huge amount of fun satirising the vapidities and cupidity of the film industry:

‘What happened?’ Luke eventually asked. ‘Jesus, what was the publicity budget?’

‘On “Tis?”‘ said Joe. ‘Nothing. Two, three.’

They all shook their heads. Jim was philosophical. ‘That’s poetry;’ he said.

Yet it was both unfortunate and unsurprising that a writer so profoundly influenced by, and clearly in love with, cinema would have so little success with the medium himself. To read Amis’s prose is to experience the effervescent thrill of a master stylist (while he was at his peak, anyway), and there is no obvious way of replicating it on screen. Until Jonathan Glazer filmed his 2014 Holocaust-themed novel The Zone of Interest, which premiered to rave reviews at this year’s Cannes film festival on the day that Amis died – an irony that the author would have enjoyed in other circumstances – none of his novels had enjoyed a satisfactory cinematic treatment, but had instead suffered the fate of so many other literary adaptations: stripped to their component parts, broken and left to rust in the open air.

In The Rachel Papers, Amis’s debut novel, there is a superb description of the protagonist (and Amis stand-in), Charles Highway, trying to be sophisticated and take Rachel, the object of his amorous attentions, on a date to the cinema. Naturally, he has chosen a French film, La Rupture, ‘as an oblique way of indicating to her how good in bed I was going to turn out to bed’. Highway muses on the wisdom of his decision:

I realised that there were plenty of sound, indeed urgent, reasons for hating French films: the impression the directors gave that the shoddier and less co-ordinated the products were, the more like life, and therefore the better, they were; that habit of lapsing into statement whenever suggestion got too difficult or ambiguous.

In the end, the evening is a success of sorts because of the support feature, Nudist Eden, and Highway eventually achieves his nefarious aims. Yet when the novel was filmed in 1989, by Richard Harris’s son Damian, the actor Dexter Fletcher was unable to convey either the ambition or the (admittedly predatory) charm of Highway, and the film was a notable commercial failure, with the critics being barely more complimentary. Empire sighed that it ‘captures the brash boldness of the novel, but not the literary wit’ and concluded that it was ‘a misguided affair’.

Yet this was kind compared to the reception that the 2018 adaptation of London Fields received. It was intended to be filmed by David Cronenberg, with a screenplay by Amis himself, but after a decade and a half in development, it eventually crawled into cinemas, now directed by Katy Perry collaborator Matthew Cullen, to bewildered, even horrified reviews. The film industry title Variety called it ‘a misbegotten mess’, and wrote mournfully ‘sometimes you have to try to adapt a seemingly unadaptable book just to learn how truly unadaptable it is’. The novel was widely regarded as one of Amis’s greatest achievements, described by none other than Simon Schama as a ‘never-likely-to-be-bettered bedtime story from the heart of Mrs Thatcher’s darkest Albion; stained with punk spit and pub puke; glossy as polished leather and sexy as hell’. The film, despite – or probably because of – a lead role for Amber Heard and a cameo from her then-husband Johnny Depp, was more of a nightmare for all concerned.

Nevertheless, it elicited some of Amis’s most substantive comments on cinema, during a 2018 interview with the Guardian. When asked about his thoughts on the adaptation, he was tactful, but said ‘It’s wise for an author to withdraw from things like this, and while I’m not saying I’m not going to talk, you should put some distance between the books you write and films made from them. Everyone tries to do this, because it’s futile to hope for a transfer of your work on to the screen in one piece. Film is about exteriors and fiction is about interiors, usually.’ He may have thought back to the varying fortunes of Alistair and Luke from ‘Career Move’, but undoubtedly also considered perhaps the strangest project he was ever involved with: the sci-fi disaster Saturn 3.

After his second novel Dead Babies was published in 1975, its macabre tone and black humour came to the attention of none other than the director of Singing in the Rain, Stanley Donen, who was working on a horror picture set in space, and wanted it to have an authentically offbeat sensibility. Amis was a keen reader of science fiction novels and fancied a challenge, to say nothing of a Hollywood paycheque, so accepted with alacrity. His script, originally titled The Helper, was then rewritten by diverse hands. Steve Gallagher, the novelist who turned the screenplay into a tie-in book, later called it ‘terrible’ and ‘truly inept’, although, in his estimation, ‘every script doctor in town had taken an uncredited swing at it, so it’s impossible to say whether it was stillborn or had been gangbanged to death’.

Amis retained screen credit, but the finished film – a half-witted farrago that tried to combine elements of Forbidden Planet, Alien and Frankenstein – remains a strange anomaly that is like nothing else in his oeuvre, perhaps because it was rewritten into incoherence. Nonetheless, the experience of the movie business gave Amis the impetus to write what is perhaps his greatest novel, Money, a Swiftian satire about a director of commercials, John Self, preparing to make his first film as he gluts himself with fleshy excess.

In it, Amis guys Saturn 3’s lead actor Kirk Douglas as ‘Lorne Guyland’, a former leading man going to seed and desperate to prove himself; as Self observes at one point: ‘The script conference ended with Lorne shrugging his robe to the floor and asking me, with tears in his eyes, “Is this the body of an old man?”. I said nothing. The answer to Lorne’s question, incidentally, was yes.’ This was drawn from fact; as Amis recalled in 2007, ‘Lorne Guyland was, let us say, inspired by Kirk. He didn’t go nude for me but, on the set, he was always ripping his clothes off. Movie stars are funny that way, or they used to be.’ He elaborated a few years later, saying ‘When actors get old they get obsessed about wanting to be nude … and Kirk wanted to be naked.’ Douglas, at the time of filming, was well into his sixties.

Amis always retained a clear-eyed scepticism about adaptation. He remarked, around the time of London Fields’ released: ‘My work isn’t adapted often enough for serious consternation. When it’s suggested that a book of mine be made into a film, I always say, “Take it away, I don’t want to have any control over it. It’s yours now, do what you will with it.” Yet with the success of The Zone of Interest at Cannes, there may now be interest in a whole posthumous raft of Amis adaptations. Some may be good, others terrible, but without their wry creator on hand to offer a literate one-liner about their prospects and weaknesses, it will be impossible to take quite the relish in them that they may deserve.


Alexander Larman