Hilary Mantel and Ruth Platt:The Art of Adaptation

We review our recent Art of Adaptation event at the BFI

On Tuesday night (6th May), we were delighted to host a special, post-festival event on the art of adapting short stories to short films. Joining us were Booker Prize winning novelist Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies, Wolf Hall) and filmmaker Ruth Platt.

The story of how the two came to work together is a fascinating one. Platt, who had for years been attempting to pen a short script about “a family with anorexia at its centre”, was struggling to express the story, one that is close to her heart, with the filmic clarity she hoped for. It wasn’t until she picked up a Sunday newspaper in which Hilary Mantel’s short story The Heart Fails Without Warning was printed, that Platt felt she had finally found a story capturing her understanding of the condition.

Platt adapted the story to a short film script of the same title. She sent it to Mantel’s agent at Harper Collins and was utterly surprised to receive a positive response. Mantel explained: “When I read the script, it was like seeing a window into the world I’d written. Ruth’s script was so right, and I could feel her commitment. I didn’t need to unwrap anything for her. There was no doubt that I was going to say yes.”

The resulting film is the first optioned piece of Mantel’s work that has come to fruition, and precedes an impending flurry of stage, TV and film adaptations. Remarkably, Tuesday night was the first time the pair had met in the flesh – and together with the audience, they watched Ruth’s film on the big screen at the BFI. The Heart Fails Without Warning is a terse and fragile family drama depicting the struggle of a sister, a mother (played by Maxine Peake) and a father as they face the tragic demise of an anorexic sister and sibling, Morna. At the heart of the narrative is an exploration of a family dynamic that hides as much as it reveals “…what’s said and what’s not said is what really fascinated me in the narrative”, explained Platt, “the ‘half glimpses’ in the narrative were wonderful to explore on film”.

Without having met, the consistency with which Platt and Mantel were able to express and share concepts about the narrative was quite outstanding. Asked whether it was intuitive, the way in which they collaborated on the subject of anorexia, the pair gave a unified answer: “it came from a pooled unconscious knowledge of the subject”.

This concept of a “pooled imagination” recurred regularly throughout the conversation and hinted towards a bringing together of artistic minds that most collaborators can only dream of. “Ruth read my story and struck a light on it. She brought it to the surface”, explained Mantel, “she captured the complexity of my written images without me having to explain anything to her. How did she do that?”

Together, Mantel and Platt discussed the final scene in the film; a beautiful expression of the departure of Morna with a mysterious white dog (created using a minimal CGI budget). The scene took Platt over a year to complete. Mantel explained that “dog imagery is very prominent in the narrative. The dog has an inability to conceal anything…it is a truth teller”. Despite Mantel having written the original story in only a matter on hours, the fact that “the images had played on [her] consciousness for years” meant that she felt an immediate affinity to Ruth’s cinematic focus on the image: “Ruth has an incredible ability to pick up an image, magnify it, and suspend it in the consciousness of the viewer.”

Asked why she was originally drawn to the story, Platt explained that “Hilary writes with such cinematic quality”. This perhaps comes as no surprise to those who have read Mantel’s novels, but a question from the audience about working from images to feed the writing process shed a fascinating light on Mantel’s approach to conjuring narrative. Having made a (notebook only) practice of describing portraiture for years, Mantel is now collaborating with a photographer to directly feed into her novels.

It seems only natural that Mantel’s work is so eagerly sought for visual adaptation – on stage and on screens big and small. Mantel clearly has a natural affinity for the clarity of a striking image –  something so many of us have enjoyed through the economy and purity of her written words. What was fascinating about this event was to hear Mantel’s utter reverence for the cinematic form (her two favourite films are Fanny and Alexander and Raging Bull), and, importantly, for the cinema-going experience: “When you sit in an audience, you experience a pooling of dreams and shared images, it’s a collective, child-like experience. We lose that, watching at home“. How lucky for us that she and Ruth crossed paths and shared their pooled dedication to simple, strong images for a brief 17 minutes of film.

Hilary’s original short story is available to read via the Guardian, here.

Written by Jo Duncombe

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