Brooklyn (2015): Effective Adaptation from Novel to Screen, Starring Oscar Nominated Saoirse Ronan

brooklyn_posterA highlight of the film year, Brooklyn tells the moving story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish immigrant navigating her way through 1950s Brooklyn.  Lured by the promise of America, Eilis departs Ireland and the comfort of her mother’s home for the shores of New York City.

The initial shackles of homesickness quickly diminish as a fresh romance sweeps Eilis into the intoxicating charm of love. But soon, her new vivacity is disrupted by her past, and she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.

 

“It made her feel strangely as though she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew.” Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn

An Irish immigrant must choose between two men, two countries and two destinies in a story of departures, longing and slow-simmering romance, tracing the unexpected journey of a young girl becoming a woman in America.

Through the film’s contemporary lens, the story reels back to the refined rhythms of the 1950s as a post-WWII wave of newcomers was arriving on U.S. shores in search of prosperity.

brooklyn_1Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel Brooklyn, one of the most acclaimed novels of the last decade, is adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby (Wild, An Education) and director John Crowley (Boy A).  At the heart of the book’s power was a classic immigrant’s tale told in a voice that has rarely been heard.  While there have been numerous stories of ambitious or desperate young men driven to seek their fortunes in America, the novel tells a different tale – one of a quiet, unassuming but luminous young woman called Eilis.

brooklyn_11Eilis has lived her whole life in tiny Enniscorthy, Ireland – where everyone knows everyone else’s business and then some — when she is swept away to America, thanks to her sister, who wants to see her flourish. She arrives into the diverse tumult of Brooklyn already homesick, feeling like an exile. But as Eilis dexterously learns to adapt to life as a New Yorker, she meets a funny, sweet, charismatic suitor determined to win her devotion. Just as she seems on the verge of beginning a new life, a family tragedy brings her back to Ireland where she is pulled back into the life she left behind … and a decision that could affect her future forever.

Caught between two different calls to her heart, Eilis confronts one of the most breathtakingly difficult dilemmas of our fluid modern world: figuring out how to merge where you have come from with where you dream of going.

brooklyn_10As for Eilis’ climactic decision, Hornby observes:  “I think Eilis can see a life in America and she can see a life in Ireland, but she cannot maintain those two pictures at once.  She knows you cannot square these two lives.  So I think that’s how she momentarily manages to love two people at once, because they are in separate worlds.  But ultimately, she has to live in just one.”

Says Tóibín:  “This is the secret history of two countries, of my country Ireland where over the last 150 years every family has lost one or two members, people who left and who never came back.  But it’s also the secret history of the United States. These are the grandparents and great grandparents of today’s Americans. This is how they came.  And this story has not often been told.”

Adapting Brooklyn

Colm Tóibín, the acclaimed Irish writer (The Blackwater Light Ship, The Master) who like the heroine of Brooklyn was born in Enniscorthy, Ireland but later moved to New York,  has long been fascinated by family loyalties and divisions; the search for home and identity; and the ways women and men long for and cultivate the groundwork of love.  The novel seemed to weave all these threads into a story about the transformative power of the immigrant experience.  Though set in the 1950s and amidst the close-knit Irish community in Brooklyn, it also seemed to speak to a timeless need to answer two of the simplest, if most consternating, questions in life:  where, and with whom, do we belong?

brooklyn_9In her review of the book, the novelist Pam Houston described it as a classical coming-of-age story, pure, unsensationalized, quietly profound…there is only the sound of a young woman slowly and deliberately stepping into herself, learning to make and stand behind her choices…”

The book delivered a rare portrait of the female immigrant experience – of a powerless young woman not only learning to navigate her new country but her complicated heart, survival and how to stand up for herself.   The uniqueness of that viewpoint, one nearly lost, is what initially drew Oscar® nominated producers Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey (AN EDUCATION), of London-based Wildgaze Pictures, to envision the novel on the screen.  They were inspired by the idea of telling a seemingly familiar story from an unseen angle.

“BROOKLYN is not only the story of an immigrant’s journey from Ireland to America, it is also Eilis’ journey of becoming the woman she wants to be,” says Posey. “It’s a story about a woman finding her true voice and finding her ability to choose, especially during a historical time when a lot of choices were restricted.”

Adds Dwyer:  “It’s also a very universal story, about the equal pull of home and wherever you end up making your adult life.  You don’t have to be thousands of miles from home for that feeling to resonate.  We all have places and people we have left behind.”

brooklyn_7They were fired up to move ahead, but Dwyer and Posey knew they faced a major hurdle right out of the gate: finding a screenwriter capable of bringing Tóibín’s work to a feature film for the first time.  Was there anyone who could capture the story’s drama while keeping the understated lyricism intact that has made Tóibín so beloved as a writer?

Fortunately, they felt they already knew just the person:  Nick Hornby, with whom they had collaborated on the Oscar-winning AN EDUCATION, the story of a 1960s English schoolgirl headed for Oxford but tempted by an entirely different kind of life.

Hornby, a critically praised and popular novelist in his own right (High Fidelity, About A Boy, Juliet Naked, Funny Girl), had most recently adapted Cheryl Strayed’s memoir WILD.

For Hornby, the resonance of BROOKLYN lay in Tóibín’s ability to capture the human heart when it is divided in its commitments – whether to country, family or a lover. “The way Colm depicts the pain of wanting to be in two places at once, it’s a beautiful balancing act — and it seems to lend itself particularly well to film,” says Hornby.  “I think if you identify with the characters in Pride and Prejudice you’ll identify with BROOKLYN – because at its heart, there is that same timeless choice a woman must make between very different kinds of young men.”

Though naturally he hasn’t experienced the life of a mid-century immigrant, Hornby resonated personally with Eilis’ curiosity about a life that might break away from the confines of her small Irish village.  “As someone who grew up in the suburbs and was counting the days until he could get somewhere else, I could identify with the essence of her journey,” he notes.

brooklyn_5Hornby says the adaptation came quite organically, despite many thinking that turning Tóibín’s deeply internal prose into screen dialogue would be daunting.  “Because Colm’s writing is very precise and he pulls away and leaves gaps, you might think it’s a very internal book, but it didn’t feel so internal to me,” the screenwriter explains.  “What happens to Eilis actually seemed ripe for dramatization.  I was interested in capturing this lovely mix of tones:  the comic, the romantic and the tragic.  Mostly I wanted audiences to go through the wringer with Eilis, to come to love her and the people around her and to be affected by her journey.”

Hornby’s delicately contained but deeply romantic approach gratified the producers.  “Nick really brought out all of the book’s many emotional layers and at the same time he brought out a lot of the humor,” says Dwyer.  “Most of all, he brilliantly evoked Eilis’ voice.”

Tóibín was especially pleased with Hornby’s adaptation.  He says of his reaction:  “I was really amazed at the clarity of it.  Nick truly understood that the central emotion of the book is love, that it’s about someone being torn between possibilities – and that if you simply followed that idea through, as he did, that you would get something very pure.”

Credits

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a BBC Films, Telefilm Canada, Bord Scannán Na Héireann/The Irish Film Board, Sodec and BFI presentation of a Wildgaze Films/Finola Dwyer Productions/Parallel Films/Item 7 co-production produced in association with Ingenious, in association with BAI RTE and Hanway Films

The film is directed by John Crowley from a screenplay by Nick Hornby based on the novel by Colm Tóibín.

It stars Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen with Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters.

The producers are Finola Dwyer & Amanda Posey; co-producers Pierre Even and Marie-Claude Poulin; and executive producers Christine Langan, Beth Pattinson, Thorsten Schumacher, Zygi Kamasa, Hussain Amarshi and Alan Moloney.

The production crew includes director of photography Yves Bélanger, production designer François Séguin, editor Jake Roberts, music by Michael Brook, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and music supervisor Kle Savidge.