How Nick Hornby Helped Bring “Wild” to the Big Screen
The popular novelist and screenwriter teamed up with Reese Witherspoon and a distinguished team to create a movie about a young woman's 1,100-mile solo trek into recovery and discovery. He tells us about the journey.
Nick Hornby is a British writer best known for his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy. His work often deals with isolated, obsessive, eccentric characters who, after many struggles, eventually make peace with their problems.
Sports and music often play a big role in his books—including his debut hit about his own football (soccer) fanaticism, 1992’s Fever Pitch. These subjects, together with his penchant for happy endings, help to explain the popularity of his works in the US, where they have been turned into successful Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
Although there is no obvious connection to drug addiction in Hornby’s life—or at least none he spoke about to us—he has just finished seeing his screenplay of Cheryl Strayed‘s celebrated 2012 addiction memoir, Wild, through to film.
Back in 1995, one of the last things Cheryl Strayed did before heading out for a 1,100-mile hike was a big, fat shot of heroin. The shot was the end of an era for Strayed. She’d spent four years reeling from her mother’s death, making a series of bad decisions. Then—after seeing a book about the Pacific Crest Trail in a store—the 26-year-old decided to try a solo hike of the massive Mexico-to-Canada trail network.
Eventually—more than 15 years after the fact—Strayed published her experience in Wild. Her book was a New York Times bestseller and has accumulated numerous accolades. The film version, starring Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) and directed by Jean-Marc Valeé (Dallas Buyers Club), will be released on December 3.
Like the book, the film flips back and forth between Strayed’s struggles on the trail and the personal history that got her there in the first place. We learn about her mistakes and flaws. We watch as she spirals into a depression. We hear the familiar conversations in which she claims she’s just experimenting with drugs, that she doesn’t have a problem. We see her hit “rock bottom.”
We also see her recover. Her recovery doesn’t follow any set 12-step or other model, but the person Strayed is today is clearly not the person who did that pre-trail shot of heroin back in 1995. As such, Wild is an excellent testament to the many forms recovery can take.
We wanted to learn more about the journey—not just Strayed’s, but also the journey from book to film. So we asked Nick Hornby about his role.
Keri Blakinger: What made you want to write the screenplay for Wild?
Nick Hornby: I read the book as soon as it was published and loved it. I could see that it would make a terrific movie, so I set about finding out who owned the rights. It turned out to be Reese and her business partner, Bruna Papandrea, and I asked them if they’d give me a shot at adapting it.
You’d written the screenplay of your novel, High Fidelity. Was adopting Cheryl Strayed’s memoir like that or more like a collaboration with another writer? How did your styles mesh?
I [also] adapted An Education a few years ago, and I’ve been working on Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, the movie version of which comes out next year. And I think “collaboration” is the wrong word, really, because Cheryl and I didn’t work together on the script. She read drafts, of course, and she offered advice, but the roles—in this case memoirist and screenwriter—are discrete.
I’m not sure that screenwriters have writing styles! I don’t have my own voice in the same way as I do when I’m writing books. I’m trying to channel Cheryl’s voice, so I keep myself out of it. I have to use my skills as a dramatist, to structure the material, provide dialogue and so on.
What particular challenges did this book present during the process of translating it to the big screen?
The book is unavoidably internal in parts—Cheryl’s on her own for a lot of the narrative, so we had to find a way of letting the audience hear her thoughts on the trail. The voiceover we use isn’t conventional—it’s in the moment, rather than recollected in tranquility, and it’s a mix of scraps of songs, poems she remembers, self-admonition and encouragement, curse words…the tumble of her head. And I reorganized some of the backstory, too. Cheryl starts with the death of her mother, but I held that back, to provide the heart of an emotional mystery.
Have you read any other addiction memoirs that you think rank as literature?
I think my favorite addiction memoir is David Carr’s The Night of the Gun. That’s an incredible book, terrifying, honest, smart, sane. And it would make a fantastic movie.
Some of the scenes in the film are expansions on moments in the book. For instance, in the book a single quote from a conversation may be expanded into an entire conversation in the film. Is the added dialogue fictionalized or did they stay true life, but simply with more detail?
I didn’t ask Cheryl for her memories of those conversations, but it seemed fairly clear to me what the content of them should be. So I don’t think of the dialogue as “fictionalized”—more like “reconstructed.” I’m joining the dots, but it didn’t feel as if I could go very far wrong. And Cheryl read every draft, so if there was anything that didn’t ring true for her, she’d have told me.
Cheryl seems to be a little bit nicer in the book. For example, in the book her relationship with her mother is less fraught and she’s not passive aggressive with the therapist. Is there a reason for this change?
I’m not sure I agree with you. Memoirs have two layers: the events, and the writer’s interpretation of events. The Cheryl who wrote Wild is extremely wise, perceptive, full of love and forgiveness. The young woman she’s describing, the young woman who was lost, angry, sick with grief, is someone different. The movie isn’t a memoir. It’s pointing a camera at those events, and we had to deny ourselves all that wisdom and perception, because otherwise the drama doesn’t work.
Other than Cheryl herself, do you have a favorite character in this?
Well, Cheryl’s mother, Bobby, is incredible, of course—endlessly loving, brave, self-knowing. And I like Frank, the guy with the licorice at the beginning of the movie. He sets the tone for the trail, I think: He indicates to Cheryl that in fact the world can be a benevolent and caring place, contrary to many of her previous experiences.
The film will hit theaters on Wednesday, but Wild has already generated high praise and Oscar buzz. Variety called it Witherspoon’s “finest performance in years,” while US magazine dubbed it a “trailblazing film” and The Hollywood Reporter referred to it as a “vivid wilderness adventure film.” As for Hornby, his latest novel, Funny Girl, came out in the UK in November; the US release is set for next year. Also coming out in 2015 is the film Brooklyn, Hornby’s screen adaptation of Colm Toibin’s best-selling historical novel.
Keri Blakinger is a recent Cornell University graduate and current staff writer for the Ithaca Times. She blogs at www.keriblakinger.com. Her previous piece for Substance.com was about 10 of the best songs about methamphetamine.
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