The Adaptation of Nick

The Adaptation of Nick

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Apr 17th 2018

As novelist/screenwriter/producer Nick Hornby turns 61 today, he’s come a great distance – and broadened in his storytelling skills and concerns over the past quarter-century. Readers and moviegovers have benefitted, as evidenced by the source novels and audience-pleasing films of his own High Fidelity and About a Boy, as well as his three lovingly effective screenplay adaptations of the works of others: An Education (2009, from Lynn Barber’s memoir), Wild (2014, from Cheryl Strayed’s autobiography) and Brooklyn (2015, from Colm Tóibin’s novel). The first and third of the trio garnered him Academy Award® nominations. His next book to come to the screen, the 2009 music obsession romance Juliet, Naked (2018), arrives in August, with others entrusted to the screenplay adaptation. Hornby reflected on the changes hard work and resultant success have brought to his outlook, telling The Guardian’s Kate Kellaway in November 2015: “You look at your early things and realize you could not write them now. If I were to write Fever Pitch now, it would be older, wiser and more boring because one of the things that made the book was its lack of perspective.” That 1992 book, an autobiographical reportage of how his own obsessive relationship with football – i.e., British soccer – and the famed Arsenal Football Club colored his growing-up years, touched a nerve with anyone who has ever devoted themselves to the frustrating fortunes of an underdog sports franchise for which championship glory is an unattainable brass ring – at least until Arsenal finally eked out a title victory in the heart-stopping climactic moments of their final match of the 1988-89 season. 

When it opened theatrically in the U.K. 21 years ago this month, Fever Pitch (1997), as scripted by Hornby and directed by David Evans, a veteran of episodic television who would memorably go on to Whitechapel, Downton Abbey and the current PBS Masterpiece Amazon Channel series Jamestown), was reshaped with fictionalizing interpolations that retained the pungent observations of sports fandom frustrations bleeding into interpersonal relationships – and added some sly trappings of romantic comedy to attract sports non-fanatics. TheSetPieces.com essayist Adam Hurrey zeroes in on how its neophyte scripter and director overcame the difficulty of adaptation via inspired casting: “On a more practical level, the book’s relative formlessness meant that Hornby was tasked with stripping it down and reconstructing it into a screenplay. No longer autobiographical, the story needed a convincing figure to ride the highs and lows, to faithfully present football fandom as a sort of therapy. Finding an actor who could play a football fan, it seemed, was as tricky a casting job as hiring an actor who could actually play football. It was just a matter of months after a quarter of the UK population had watched Colin Firth go for a swim in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice [1995], propelling him from the status of a man whose own publicist admitted ‘you couldn’t give away to the press’ to now being door-stepped by the Daily Mirror for buying a new hoover. ‘I was in Rome when I read Fever Pitch,’ Firth told the BBC in 1997, ‘and it gave me a yearning for England and the sort of rootedness that Nick Hornby talks about. And I identified with that, because I have a similar middle class background. I felt he wrote about Englishness now – my generation – in an extremely unsentimental and yet not hostile or bitter way.’ Clearly equipped with the earnestness required for the role, Firth then had to bridge a football knowledge gap and, specifically, an Arsenal one. Hornby took him to Highbury in 1996 – the Winchester-born Firth’s only previous experience of live games was a few trips to watch Southampton at the Dell – but was encouraged by the leading man’s grasp of the game. ‘He knew a reasonable amount of football. He went several more times that season; he read a history of Arsenal; he watched videos and, for reasons best known to himself, memorized the names of the 1971 and 1989 squads. One extra overheard Colin Firth giving a potted history of the club in between takes. Stuff like this was pretty much all I had to show for my four decades on the planet; it was a bit depressing to see someone master it in a couple of weeks.’” Fortunately, Hornby didn’t allow that bit of depression to keep him from plugging away at mastering prose and screenwriting skills already evident in Fever Pitch, which Team Twilight Time offers on hi-def Blu-ray here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26732/FEVER-PITCH-1997/. It features an engaging, football-savvy Audio Commentary chat between the label’s creative director Julie Kirgo and a British-born colleague who, in common with Hornby, is an Oscar®-nominated filmmaker and respected music authority, has a storied devotion to a legendary Premier League club (Chelsea), and celebrates a birthday today. He’s also named Nick.