Last night I watched the first part of “Any Human Heart” on Channel 4, adapted by William Boyd from his own novel (full disclosure – I haven’t read the novel). You can follow the link to 4OD to watch it here. Quite apart from the fact that it’s an encouraging sign that TV producers are turning away from the 19th century classics when planning their big-budget autumn schedule, this was bold, ambitious and entertaining television. Jim Broadbent, playing the main character, Logan Mountstuart in grim, uncertain old age, showed in his few brief scenes why he can still blow younger actors off the screen. Sam Claflin and Matthew Macfadyen played Logan in callow youth and unsettled maturity respectively, and the jump between the actors didn’t feel in the least jarring. I can’t compare it to the novel (which I will read in the future – it joins the list along with all the other teeming thousands), but I was very impressed, and it’s encouraged me to read more of Boyd’s work.
What intrigued me most about it though was the familiar way it portrayed “the writer” as a character. Logan Mountstuart uses his post-Oxford trip to Paris, and a brief meeting with Ernest Hemingway, as the inspiration for his scandalous first novel, “The Girl Factory”. Duly then, we see the character sit down at his typewriter, pause thoughtfully, and tap out the words of the title. The process is repeated for his second book, “The Cosmopolitans”. Other than that, the only writing we see Logan doing is in his journal, as he excoriates himself for his romantic failings, or explores the agonies of unfulfilled love. The rest of the time, he seems too busy living to get much writing done, and all the work must happen off-screen. (See also one of my favourite films, “Henry and June”, about Henry Miller and his attempts to write “Tropic of Cancer”.)
This isn’t necessarily a criticism. The whole point of the character is his drifting passivity, the good and bad luck that puts him in the way of historical figures and events (the scene, dialogue-free, where he shares a urinal with Churchill is priceless) and his concern at the unfocused direction of his work. The fact remains that writers as characters would be incredibly dull if filmmakers cared more for verisimilitude than dramatic pace. If you were to make a wholly realistic film about a writer in the midst of his or her creation, it would have to show hours of their blank, slack-jawed expression, much staring out of the window, sighing, brow-rubbing, occasional stabs at the notepad or the keyboard, trips to the kitchen for cups of tea etc etc etc. In my case, it would mostly show me at work, or cleaning up after a 16 month old toddler, or prevaricating by writing this blog. This might be realistic, but it would make for a Warholian level of boredom.
Artistic creation, that weird alchemy, is usually portrayed on screen as fevered inspiration. Ed Harris’ film about Jackson Pollock takes the “action” in “action painting” literally. Henry Miller, in the aforementioned “Henry and June”, finally gets down to his novel in a sleepless burst of energy, while the rest of the world whirls on around him. In one five minute montage, a 350 page novel is written.
There’s something encouraging, then, that the process is irreducible, and can’t be caught on-screen. Perhaps Logan Mountstuart, tapping out the title of his book and then going on to live his life, is the more realistic depiction after all?