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The career of screenwriter Peter Straughan has taken him from Gateshead theatre to Hollywood studios, where he has adapted books such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for the big screen. In his appearance at Durham Book Festival he reflected on his wide-ranging work in films and on television, and on the art of literary adaptation. Hannah Piercy reviews.
Peter Straughan is best known for his adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Men Who Stare at Goats and the recent TV series Wolf Hall. These successes speak for themselves, but it is his frank and humble manner that wins over the audience of this Durham Book Festival event. Peter is warm and friendly, his Gateshead roots evident in his accent creating an instant bond with an audience eager to hear about the success of someone from the locality. The North-East is clearly dear to Peter: he speaks gratefully about his progression from an administration job at New Writing North to Writer in Residence at the Live Theatre, Newcastle (which he claims was a case of completely ‘learning on the job’). While he’s since shared film sets with the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and George Clooney, who he confesses made him ‘star-struck’, he remains thoroughly down-to-earth.
Straughan is candid about his career development. His dream from the age of sixteen was to be a musician, and it was only after his hopes for his band fell through that he went to university to study English Literature. While studying at Newcastle, he tried his hand at acting (‘My sister, who supports me in everything, came to see me in a play and said “I don’t think acting’s for you…”’), which got him into the theatre scene where his career began. Yet despite being such a respected writer, Peter claims he would choose being in a successful band over his current achievements: a refreshingly honest admission that even the most successful people have faced setbacks and adjusted their aspirations before finding their niche.
There comes a point at which you’re sick of saying that you haven’t made anything anyone’s seen
Peter says his initial success came from being ‘a good thief, a good imitator’, citing the Coen brothers and David Mamet as major influences. Combining eclectic sources, he claims to have appeared ‘just original enough’ to launch his career. He is willing to be frank about the ups and downs of working in the film industry: ‘you can have an interesting or odd story, but then they say that it also needs to be a box office hit, with an A-list cast member and a romantic sub-plot’. ‘There comes a point at which you’re sick of saying that you haven’t made anything anyone’s seen’, so you end up making a film that’s ‘not the film you wanted to make’. Getting your name out there isn’t necessarily a blessing anyway, because ‘you’re always asked to do the same thing you’ve just done’. But while he says ‘there’s a very simple equation: you can tell an odd story if it’s very cheap’, Straughan himself is living proof that the equation doesn’t always hold true: The Men Who Stare at Goats is ‘an odd story that was very expensive to make’, but one which was undeniably successful.
One film Peter is clearly proud of is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. ‘There’s these little things in your career that just click’, he says, speaking fondly of his strong working relationship with director Tomas Alfredson. They shared a firm sense that they did not want to ‘try and James Bond it up’; Straughan recalls Alfredson joking that the tag-line for the film should be ‘a world in which middle-aged men talk very slowly’. He describes Tomas as working almost more in the style of theatre, workshopping ideas and thinking laterally rather than with the ‘plodding logic’ behind so many box office ‘successes’. Straughan frequently stresses how important it is to establish a vision shared by producer, director and writer, and one gets the sense that Tinker Tailor is perhaps the film where he feels this was most perfectly achieved.
Collaboration has played a huge part in Straughan’s career; in particular, he has worked on several projects with his wife, Bridget O’Connor. I can’t help wondering whether his fondness for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is partly because it was the last film on which he collaborated with Bridget, who tragically died of cancer before the film was released. After her death, Straughan felt himself floundering professionally as well as emotionally: while he had worked on many films without Bridget, her advice had been invaluable throughout his career. ‘I wasn’t sure if I’d actually be able to do it anymore.’ It was Wolf Hall that drew him back into writing; this work partly appealed to him because of his sympathy with Thomas Cromwell, whose wife dies early in the novel. He rose to the challenge of turning Mantel’s two lengthy novels into six hour-long TV episodes, with Mantel herself calling his adaptation ‘a miracle of eloquent compression’.
So what next for Straughan? He’s currently working on a sequel to Tinker Tailor, an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and a third TV series for Hilary Mantel’s yet-to-be-published novel, as well as hoping to direct a full-length feature film. ‘I like the challenges,’ he says in reference to the length, difficulty and often oddity of the works he’s adapted. With so much in the pipeline, I for one am thoroughly excited to see how Straughan rises to the next set of challenges. And with such drive and enthusiasm, who knows what will happen next – he might end up a famous musician after all!
Durham Book Festival ran from 6-17 October 2015; our reviews of many of the Festival events can be found here. Follow the organisers of the Festival, New Writing North, for more literary events throughout the year.