Photo: Giles Keyte/Focus Features
David Nicholls
“When you’re writing a modern love story, you have to find the barriers, you have to find the obstacles… Class is again an abiding theme. It’s something we’re acutely aware of, especially early on in our lives.”
A Day in the Life
British author David Nicholls finds inspiration from Thomas Hardy to adapt his own novel One Day, the story of a star-crossed couple's 20-year relationship.

Written by Dylan Callaghan

(August 19, 2011)

There’s spoiling the plot of a new movie and then there’s just not being a very nice person. This makes discussing British author David Nicholls’ film adaptation of his bestselling novel One Day awfully tricky.

Let’s start with what we can say: the film stars Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess and is a love story of the largely unrequited kind spanning some two decades. Our star-crossed lovers are Emma (yes, Emma) and Dexter who meet the night of Emma’s university matriculation, July 15, 1988. From there we follow as they again and again just miss their destined connection by the very flailing clumsiness that accompanies only the truest love.

In a fresh narrative device, the storytelling is pinned to that same July 15 each year. Where 19th-century England has served as the backdrop for so many of One Day’s classic predecessors, (Nicholls was actually adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess D’Ubervilles for the BBC when he began writing the novel), here we are treated to many of the same themes – class, materialism and virtue – played against the contemporary zeitgeist of the last two decades.

So it’s a lot about love with a good bit of class politics as well.

Nicholls spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his unique narrative hook, the Tess-influenced writing of the novel and its adaptation, and why, though he insists he harbors no ill will toward them in real life, he always writes posh private school boys as capital jerks.

I understand you wrote this novel while working on an adaptation of Tess?  

That’s right. I was doing Tess for the BBC, and I was writing this alongside. I can never write an original novel and an original screenplay at the same time, but I find the process of [doing an] adaptation and writing fiction actually complements each other.

Photo: © 2011 Focus Features
Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in One Day.

Is it a sort of shadow relationship when you’re writing a novel and adapting another one, in this case one of the best novels ever written? Is there osmosis between the two?  

It does feel a bit as if you’re using different parts of your brain. It’s very hard to write a novel and not put a lot of yourself on the page. Part of you is going to come up, part of your experience, your past, and your opinions. Writing a novel is very immersive and very up and down, good days and bad days. But adapting a book, especially a wonderful book like Tess, and doing a very faithful adaptation, feels more editorial, more structural and technical, I suppose like more of a craft.

How cognizant of making this into a film were you during the writing of the novel?  

Genuinely, not a great deal. It wasn’t something I thought about. Once I’d worked out the story, it felt absolutely like a novel… there seemed to me to be a great many practical difficulties in putting it on the screen. Expense was one issue, because it jumps all over the world. Casting was going to be an issue because it’s very hard to find actors that can play that age range…

Twenty years.  

Convincingly, yes. Genre was an obstacle. I knew that it wasn’t going to be a conventional romantic comedy, even though it has kind of a classic romantic comedy premise, you know? It’s the When Harry Met Sally, will-they-won’t-they-get-together? thing, but going in a very different direction. So it seemed like there were all kinds of reasons why it wouldn’t make a good movie. In reality, actually, most of the people who saw the manuscript passed on it as a movie. People thought that the device of the same day for 20 years was a literary device rather than a cinematic one. How do you tell the audience it’s the same day and why do you show the same day?

How long was that first draft?  

It was about 122 pages. We inevitably had to trim that down and trim it down. I’m sure I must have done 25 passes on the script. The biggest challenge was to try to get rid of any sense of episodes, of it being 20 short films, trying to get the action to flow smoothly, choosing which set pieces to play at length and which set pieces to treat very economically.

We really focused in on seven or eight big confrontations and used the years in between more to establish situations and information rather than playing them at length.

So you had seven or eight kind of tentpole years and then the rest as the ether?  

Exactly. We realized we couldn’t have 20 equally-sized chunks, that some years would have to last 45 seconds and others would have to last 15 minutes.

From a creative standpoint, what aspect of Tess, if any, do you feel inspired or fueled you in the One Day endeavor?  

The main influence is that the idea for the structure of One Day came from a passage in Tess that I’d read some time ago but that had really stuck in my head. It was just a paragraph that I thought contained a germ for a very interesting structural approach.

Is that the one where she’s looking in the mirror and imagining…?  

That’s right. It’s a hard one to talk about too explicitly because I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s a thing about realizing that there’s a specific day in the calendar that we pass through each year without realizing it. That seemed to me a terrific starting point for a novel.

But that aside, there isn’t a great deal of Hardy influence in the novel. I love Thomas Hardy, but he’s a lyrical, poetic, and descriptive writer. He doesn’t write particularly fluent dialogue. It can be a little stilted and stagey.

The only real cross-fertilization was perhaps how Hardy is very obsessed with notions of fate and predestination, how a chance remark or a letter undelivered, an accident of fate, can alter the course of life. In Tess, it’s a dance. At the end of her life, she realizes that if she’d been chosen for a dance with Angel Clare her life would have turned out differently.

That’s an idea that finds its way into One Day.

Another interesting parallel is that One Day is also a tale of class.  

All British writers have to touch upon class because it’s such a prevalent part of our society more than almost anywhere else in the world. How where you come from affects who you are is a common theme you find in British literature. You find it in Tess and Great Expectations. Certainly there’s a lot of that in One Day. I’d written before about university and class and education and the relationship between the two in my first novel, Starter For 10. That was a book very much concerned with class and education. There’s a bit of that, certainly in the opening, of One Day.

Also, when you’re writing a modern love story, you have to find the barriers, you have to find the obstacles. What are the obstacles now as opposed to the 19th-century? Class is again an abiding theme. It’s something we’re acutely aware of, especially early on in our lives. It just seemed natural for that to be a part of the relationship between Emma and Dexter.

To what extent did you set out to say something about class or do you simply set out to write and then see what it says?  

I certainly don’t set out with an agenda or a political axe to grind, but inevitably your opinions find their way onto the page and your experiences very much find their way onto the page. I was interviewed the other day and the interviewer said, “You really hate posh people, don’t you? You really hate privately educated men, more specifically.” Looking back through the books it’s certainly true that privilege is shorthand for arrogance and vanity and insensitivity. That’s not something that I’ve ever set out to consciously put on the page because it’s not necessarily something I think is true in real life. I don’t think all privately educated upper-middle class men are arrogant idiots, but somehow it finds its way onto the page. I don’t know why that is.

Well maybe there’s just a little bit of truth to it.