David Magee has made a career of externalizing the very internal journeys of some of literatures most celebrated characters. The screenwriter is a two-time Oscar nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay with 2004's Finding Neverland and 2012's Life of Pi, as well as the writer behind such big screen adaptations as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) and Mary Poppins Returns (2018).
"If, in a book, a character's wandering around thinking about something, while they do absolutely nothing of any interest, you have to find ways to bring out what's going on in his head," Magee says of his work. "I don't consider anything impossible to translate to screen. You're trying to translate the emotions and the journey of the character. And if it means you tell the story in a different way to get to that — Life of Pi is a good example — that's what you do. Because you can't just have a scene of a boy sitting on a boat and not know what the inner conflict of that is."
Now, he is getting into the heads of three very different characters: An aristocrat who strikes up a torrid affair, a grumpy old man rediscovering human connection, and a young mermaid who dreams of being part of your world.
The former are Lady Chatterley's Lover, adapted from D. H. Lawrence's controversial novel and starring Emma Corrin in the title role, and A Man Called Otto, from the Swedish novel and film and starring Tom Hanks as an irascible widower whose heart is healed when a family of immigrants move in next door. (Between those two projects, Magee also penned the script for Netflix's The School for Good and Evil, based on Soman Chainani's YA fantasy series.)
"They're very character-driven stories. You understand those characters from the inside out, and you find ways to express what those characters are going through, through their actions, through their reactions, through their dialogue," Magee says. "In that way, they're very similar."
That leaves Disney's upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, adapted from the Oscar-winning 1989 animated classic and starring Halle Bailey as Ariel. "In an animated film, you can do things in a way that you can't do in a live adaptation," he teases.
In a conversation with A.frame, Magee expands on bringing Lady Chatterley's Lover, A Man Called Otto, and The Little Mermaid from the page to the screen.
A.frame: Lady Chatterley’s Lover was very scandalous when it was published, but in adapting it in 2022, did you find the source material to be as shocking as you expected? What goes into taking that content and updating it for a current audience?
Well, you went straight to the heart of the matter. Because I was first aware of Lady Chatterley as a film or as a series of films — these kind of steamy, Cinemax After Dark kind of movies that played back 20 or 30 years ago — and I thought of the title as being something scandalous by its very nature. I had never read the book. I had read Sons and Lovers, I had read Women in Love, and I loved those film adaptations. But I never saw anything like that for Lady Chatterley's Lover, and so, I didn't really take it seriously as a film possibility until the producer, Laurence Mark, called me and said, 'Why don't you take a look at it?'
When I did, I saw what a beautiful story it was, what a heartbreaking romance it was, and that it was about people who were damaged from the effects of war — from having lost people, from having seen loss — and they needed to find ways to become whole again. For me, that was a whole story unto itself. I started working on it about nine years ago. Game of Thrones was on at that time and it was a popular, and the sexuality and graphic nature of that show made anything in Lady Chatterley seem tame by comparison, frankly! So, it was no longer a question of, 'Is this too scandalous for the public?' It became much more about, 'Is this a story worth telling for other reasons?' And it had changed over time.
I spoke with the director, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, and she said her one suggestion was to tell the story primarily through Connie's [Lady Chatterley] perspective. Did that impact your initial approach?
The producers and I, we all wanted a female director for this. Not just for the sake of it, but because I didn't want to be writing a story from a male perspective with a male director about a female's point of view on life or sexuality. We didn't need the male gaze taking over. I wanted it to be a dialogue. I wanted it to be something that we were looking at from different angles. And she came in from the very beginning saying she wanted to focus this on the female perspective, which we were grateful for and looking for. And then, over the course of I don't know how many months, Laure and I talked about specific scenes. And she would suggest ways in which it could be more focused on Connie or on Connie's perspective, so that evolved over the course of time. I couldn't give you a specific example now because things evolve over such a long period of time. I can't even remember what I worked on yesterday!
Moving on to A Man Called Otto, which has a tricky tone to balance in terms of the humor and some of the darker elements. What is the key to making those tones work together?
I think there are two secrets to it, and I don't think they're that secret. One is that, when you are open emotionally, you're open to laughing and you're open to crying. If I can get you to identify with a character and laugh at them, and then, tell you about something that they're going through, you're going to be more receptive to accepting that emotionally. That'll take you to that more emotional place. And if I then find a very realistic and believable moment in which it can be funny again, you'll want that release. So, it invites you in. It doesn't try to force you to laugh at something and it doesn't try to force you to care about someone. It invites you to open yourself up to a character and, if you can just get that door open, those two worlds of humor and of empathy are very closely related.
I don't think people want to watch two hours of unremitting sadness. It becomes a drag. Nor do I think they want to watch two hours of endless jokes about jokes about jokes, where it feels like, 'Well, there's nothing here.' For me, that is that balance, where you actually care and feel for them and, at the same time, we've all laughed at moments of sadness. We've all found humor at a funeral or in the midst of sickness or an argument with a significant other where you both find the absurdity in it, and it actually relieves the moment. I think it's more reflective of what life is like to write in that way.
With Otto, did you end up tailoring anything to Tom Hanks once you knew he was signed on? Does he get involved in the script process at this point in his career?
I knew Tom Hanks was playing this role from the beginning, so it didn't matter whether I was tailoring it to him or not. His voice was in my head. We've all seen so many Tom Hanks films, and we all feel we know him. Obviously, he's his own person, but we understand his rhythms. We can hear his voice — literally. If you pause now, you can hear his voice in your head. So, it did affect the way I wrote, but I wasn't consciously trying to write to him. I was trying to write that character. It's just that whenever I wrote it, I'd go like, 'Yeah, he'd say that. That would work.'
As far as Tom's involvement, he had opinions about very specific things, especially in the early going. It was like, 'I love all of this. Just these three things matter to me. Let's look at those three things.' And so, I looked at those three things and we got rolling. When we got on set, he was very respectful, but he was also willing to play, 'What if we tried this?' And of course, he's Tom Hanks. Not only are you more than willing to do it, but he's got great ideas. So, most of the playing that he did was building on what was already there. He only enhanced it, no matter what he did.
A Man Called Otto is based on both the novel by Fredrik Backman and the Swedish film, A Man Called Ove. What sort of adjustments did you feel like you needed to make in order to 'Americanize' the story? And what did you strive to keep from the source material?
Well, I think that the character of Otto is slightly different in his tastes. In Sweden, he drives a Volvo or a Saab — I can't remember which — instead of a Chevy or a Ford. But the essential character of Otto is someone that I know I recognized from my own life. He's that cranky person who hides what they're really feeling and grows irritated with the world, because they're not allowed to express themselves or let other people into their pain. I identified that character very clearly, so that was going to be in the film no matter what. Obviously, we changed Marisol from Iranian to Mexican and, in the course of that, we started exploring ways in which she would be bringing her culture to this neighborhood.
There were technical things that didn't translate over. Swedish socialized medicine was one of the reasons that the character up the street who had health problems was being forced out of his home. That was not going to be a part of our film. It didn't make sense. Forced retirement at age 65 doesn't exist in our world. So, I created the world of the realty agency, the conglomerate that owns the townhouses and is trying to take over this neighborhood, and their corporate connection to a healthcare system, where they might be cheating in order to get people out. That was how we came up with that solution.
It was more of a gentle adjustment in terms of specifics, and then, deciding what we really wanted to focus on in terms of scenes. There's a lot in the Swedish film and book about the fact that Otto's father worked for the train system and that the railway system is very much a part of life in Sweden. We played with that for a while in this, but it didn't feel like the right thing. When we started talking about steelworkers in a town where you've worked hard to get your job, and then, the industry falls on hard times and you find yourself without a job because of some corporate merger, that to me was much more an American experience. And so, that was the kind of adjustment we made.
Your next project is Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid, which is a project with so many built-in fans and also so many expectations. How has that process been? Were there things you wanted to add to that story that hadn't been in any of the other adaptations?
First of all, it was a joy to work on. It was an absolute pleasure. The animated Little Mermaid is a classic — I am not in any way going to ever disparage anything about that — but I will say, in an animated film, you can do things in a way that you can't do in a live adaptation. For example, there's a funny scene where the French chef chases Sebastian around with a meat cleaver. If you do that with a real chef running around trying to harm a crab that you've come to know and love as an actual living being, it is not funny. So, there is a lot of trimming away the stuff that works best in animation, and rethinking how to tell a story about someone who feels like they don't belong in the world they're in, and they don't quite belong in the world they want to be in.
Along with Alan Menken, and Lin-Manuel [Miranda], and Rob Marshall, and [producer] John DeLuca, we had to rethink, 'Are there other ways that we can go into the mind of this young girl who doesn't talk? Are there ways that we can tap into what her journey is when she gets on land and she realizes it's not all she hoped it would be?' And so, to deepen that, Alan and Lin created new songs where we were hearing her thoughts about what she's going through. And in working on deepening the character of the Prince, who is a lovely animated character who's basically just dumbstruck really, we had to find a reason that he's falling for this beautiful young woman that's not just about the fact that she's beautiful and young. But that they identify with something in each other in a way that transcends having to talk about it.
It was a lot of the exploration that we did. And the result, I couldn't be more excited about it. I haven't seen it in a while, because they've been working on those special effects for a long time now. I'm very much looking forward to seeing it, but everything I know about what Rob created is that it's going to be tremendous. And I can't wait!
And Halle Bailey looks wonderful as Ariel. Just wonderful.
She's tremendous. She sings in a room with five people there and cardboard boxes to represent the walls, and we're all in tears after about 30 seconds, because she is that powerful a singer. She's the real deal.
By Elizabeth Stanton