27 Nov 2016

'I think it's going to look very beautiful onscreen'

From Standing Room Only, 1:33 pm on 27 November 2016

Novelist-turned-screenwriter Eleanor Catton says a TV miniseries of her Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries is due to start filming in late 2017.

While adapting that book for the screen, Catton handed over her debut novel The Rehearsal to a team of filmmakers earlier this year.

Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton Photo: Supplied

Adding to a huge year for the Auckland-based writer comes news that she is one of 2016’s Arts Foundation Laureates, just six years after she received the foundation's New Generation award.

Catton says she wanted to be very involved in bringing The Luminaries to the screen and the process of adaptation has been a revelation.

"It's been writing of a very different kind than what I've been used to. Writing scripts is a more porous experience, a more fluid and sporadic experience than writing fiction. I don't find it as immersive."

She believes her second novel will lend itself well to television.

"It's set in a period of history that's very interesting and I think it's going to look very beautiful onscreen." 

Being at the helm of adapting The Luminaries – she's executive producer – was important to her, Catton says.

"I felt it's a much more complex story. I suppose in a way the heart of The Luminaries – what the story's really all about, and what what I was trying to say – is almost submerged in the book, it's alluded to and felt rather than stated. So I felt very strongly I needed to be at the helm of the adaptation process in order to keep those values secure."

Although there has been substantial re-writing to make it work for TV.

"The point of the story where we join the narrative [in the novel] doesn't really work on television. In television you really have to follow a character from the very beginning of their journey to the very end, you can't really clock in half way through and then go backwards. The audience won't appreciate that, they want to be there, they want to be a witness."

Catton and her collaborators eschewed the flashback as a story-telling device.

"We agreed at the beginning that flashback was something we were going to deny ourselves! So we're making great use of flash-forwards and we're bringing a lot of the back story into the present and changing the plot in order to accommodate that."

Catton says she has enjoyed the process of writing dialogue for screen.

"Learning to write in suspense sentences is something you don't really need to as a novelist. It's a tool used in dialogue that you should try and withhold the most interesting word of the sentence until the very end of the speech in order to keep the audience's interest.

"It means virtually all of the dialogue in The Luminaries has to be rewritten – I can't really lift it from the book." 

A six-part miniseries adaptation of The Luminaries is scheduled to air on the BBC in 2018.

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