Notes on Scandal: Marber and Eyre

In this age of loneliness, isolation and disconnect, we live in cities that house millions of people yet everyone at one time or another yearns for companionship, for someone to reach out and connect with us on some level, .any level. This is the universal feeling that comes through in Zo Hellers 2001 page-turner of a novel, What Was She Thinking: Notes On a Scandal, a suspenseful story of loneliness and obsession that cuts, with equal parts dark humor and realism, right to the shadowy center of the human yearning for connection.

Readers were drawn in by Barbara Covetts blisteringly funny, yet ultimately deceptive, revelations about her so-called friendship with fellow teacher, Sheba Hart. Between Shebas dangerously ill-conceived affair with a student and Barbaras own spin and hidden agenda, what might have been merely a character study unfolded more like a thriller. Eventually, the book would garner not only widespread acclaim but numerous awards, including being short-listed for the coveted Man Booker Prize for English literature.

The rights were quickly acquired by leading producers Scott Rudin and Robert Fox, who also recently brought Michael Cunninghams beloved, multi-stranded novel The Hours to the screen. Rudin had already contracted with leading playwright and screenwriter Patrick Marber to tackle the adaptation, knowing he would create a brilliant screenplay.

When theatre and film director Richard Eyre was approached by Rudin and Fox about directing the film version of NOTES ON A SCANDAL he, like so many others, had already read the book. Eyre had found it at once funny, touching and beautifully observed — precisely the kind of material that intrigues him. Says Eyre: I saw it as a story of friendships and sexual intoxications. Its really a tale of two obsessions, of two women in the grip of their own self-destructive, uncontrollable passions.

Eyre and Rudin had previously collaborated with great success, along with Judi Dench, on the acclaimed IRIS, the film about the extraordinary life-long love affair between the brilliant author Iris Murdoch and her devoted husband, John Bayley as well as the critically lauded stage production Amys View. IRIS garnered both an Oscar and Golden Globe for Jim Broadbent, as well as Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Dench and Kate Winslet. Eyre next directed the critically praised STAGE BEAUTY, a comedy-drama set on the 17th Century London stage, but had since returned to the theatre, directing two highly successful and utterly opposite productions: the new musical stage version of Mary Poppins in London and on Broadway and his fresh adaptation of Henrik Ibsens classic drama Hedda Gabler in Londons West End.

Id just done the two extremes of the spectrum in theatre–so to get back to filmmaking with a project with the fantastic credentials of NOTES ON A SCANDAL was irresistible, he comments.

Marbers adaptation would be challenging, as Hellers novel was written as a series of highly subjective journal entries in the pen of Barbara Covett which he masterfully crafted as diary entries, slowly revealing through her unreliable words the depths of her delusions and manipulations when it came to Sheba Hart.

But based on Marbers previous body of work, there was no doubt that he was up to the task. He recently came to the fore as the author of the play Closer, a darkly funny look into the realities of love and desire which won the Olivier, Evening Standard and both London and New York Critics Circle Awards for Best Play before going on to write the adaptation of the acclaimed feature film.

Adapting Rich Expansive Novel

Marber had to come up with a way to turn Zo Hellers distinctly literary approach to the story of Barbara and Sheba into something far more dynamic, immediate and cinematic. I did find writing this screenplay very difficult, admits Marber, but I was greatly helped by Scott Rudin, who pushed me through every draft. The novel is so rich and expansive that the job was to find a way to somehow compact all this into the story.

That essence–at once comic and observant–became key to what Marber hoped to create in scenes of witty, tense and revealing dialogue. He carved the story around the books most relevant and pressing theme: the overwhelming isolation that wreaks so much havoc in modern lives, which is the ultimate undoing of Barbara Covett. I hope the film says something about a particular kind of modern loneliness, the desperation one can experience even in a city of millions that I think that everyone feels at times, he says.

Clever Screenwriter

For Heller, Marber was an inspired choice to attempt the feat. With Patrick Marber, I felt Id gotten the most interesting and clever screenwriter possible, she comments. He was able to take what I had written and make something new out of it. Hes done an amazing job of turning it into something that really works on screen. I like to think my book was a page-turner, but he upped the excitement and the suspense of the book, which is all for the good.

More Objective Storytelling

Marber began by exploring the storys two main characters, starting with Barbara, the unforgettable narrator who comes to harbor corrosive secrets about her new best friend, Sheba Hart. Says Marber: I thought Zo had done such a brilliant job that it was all there waiting for me in the book. I was very faithful to what Zo had written about Barbara. The thing thats really different in the novel is that Barbara is telling the story from her point of view, so my job was to try to bring a more objective ballast to who she is, but at the same time keep her persona as this prickly, funny, at times stoic, figure. Shes no-nonsense, but shes also got this aching, beating, vulnerable heart, and is someone who has never known love. Everything she does is out of a desperate loneliness and yet, at the same time, shes a monster. Ive always been attracted to characters who you love and despise simultaneously, and Barbara inspires both reactions.

Marber felt a similarly invigorating conflict towards the character of Sheba. I gave Sheba a slightly more offbeat, bohemian background than she has in the book, but her vulnerabilities and complicated feelings remain the same, he comments.

Upon reading the completed screenplay, Richard Eyre was impressed with Marbers skill at shifting the story from the subtlety of the page to the grander scale of the big screen, turning Barbaras journal entries into palpably realistic scenes. It was especially wonderful how he was able to keep the narrative in Barbaras point of view, yet with a minimum of voice-over, avoiding the dangers of the relentless narrator, comments the director.

Honest Treatment

Also important to Eyre was the screenplays honest handling of the highly topical but definitely controversial notion of a middle-aged, married teacher carrying on a torrid affair with her underage student. It was important that the relationship between Sheba and Steven be presented truthfully, by which I mean that the audience sees that its hinged on both a passionate, sexual attraction and a kind of tenderness and mutual curiosity, Eyre comments. I mean clearly what Shebas doing is deeply wrong, but theres a delicate balance we wanted to strike of showing the honest truth of her relationship without in any way romanticizing it.

Ultimately, Eyre was most pleased by how the screenplay seemed to capture the irresistible speed and fearless verve of Hellers novel, while retaining its rich emotions of laughter, horror and grief which he knew would be heightened further via the films visual style and performances.

Funny and Frightening

I really hope people find this film funny, as well as occasionally frightening, shocking and sad, Eyre sums up. There is something at once comical, ghastly and terribly human about this delusion that Barbara has that she will have a passionate, lifelong friendship with Sheba. And Barbaras feelings for Sheba are analogous to Shebas feelings for Steven, the schoolboy. These two women are not in control any more than any of us are in control when it comes to love.