One Day at a Time, or, Oh…Anne Hathaway…

by TheLitCritGuy


There are certain books that you just see gain the critical and cultural momentum that makes a film adaptation usually have an air of inevitability about it. Certain books just seem to move via cultural osmosis becoming THAT book. You know, the one that all of your friends have read, the book that gets passed around reading groups, Twitter friends and Facebook, makes its way into the weekend supplements and discussed over Sunday morning coffee. In short, certain books that make it, become utterly inescapable and the world just has to put up with it.

So come with me on a mystical journey through time to the mythical period of ancient history – the year 2009! When a certain David Nicholls published a book called ‘One Day.’ Following the lives of its two protagonists, each chapter covers the same day over the course of twenty years going from graduation from university to middle age, detailing the travails of work, love and the friendship they share with each other.There’s Dexter, the upper middle class wealthy playboy and Emma, the chippy northerner burdened by middle class guilt and slightly too much intelligence, whilst this has moments of romance the book also manges to deal with the struggles of living through the recent history of the England 1988-2008.

In short, One Day was a huge success managing to combine the literary power of romantic fiction with a critical acceptance that the genre doesn’t usually garner. The broadsheet’s loved it, with John O’Connell  claiming that the book, ‘For, in spite of its comic gloss, One Day is really about loneliness and the casual savagery of fate; the tragic gap between youthful aspiration and the compromises that we end up tolerating. Not for nothing has Nicholls said that it was inspired by Thomas Hardy.’

If the quote from the The Time’s literary reviewer doesn’t give it away, I think the cultural door-keepers of society did what they normally do in these circumstances; finding something that is generic but very good at being generic and then attaching huge cultural significance to it, as if here was the crucial moment when something popular became something worthy of some sort of literary merit. Frankly I think that most of the literary reviewers over-stated the books importance and if there is any literary worth it is going to take a little more historical distance for that to emerge.

But let’s get one thing straight, the book is very good. Dominated by the conceit of having all of the action take place on St Swithin’s day I don’t think it really allows David Nicholls to show off just how good a writer he is, huge swathes and massively important events in the lives of our two lead characters are skipped out and at times it can feel frustrating. The book is very good, often very funny and manages to swing into some truly heart-breaking pathos at moments. However, the characters are somewhat broad, and thus hugely identifiable with no matter who you are. If you haven’t read it, and want something easy but emotionally rewarding then I really suggest you check out the book.

Interestingly, David Nicholls was closely involved in the adaptation process and worked on the screenplay that was being directed by Lone Scherfig who was looking to follow-up on the smash hit An Education. After struggling with the casting the film came  out in 2011, with Jim Sturgess playing Dexter and Anne Hathaway playing Emma.

Given the brief gap between the book and the film it was geared towards making as much money as possible and on paper it seemed that this was going to be a smash hit. The director was on form and their last film had been critically adored. Anne Hathaway was, (and still is) one of the most recognisable actresses working in cinema and Jim Sturgess looked to be a star in the making. Despite all of this the film was not considered a great success, and many who loved the book, just didn’t love the film.

What went wrong?

Well, let’s look at each elements briefly and see if it can be worked out. The director? No, I have no real problems, she has a great eye for shot composition and the period detailing of the film is often painfully on the money. The two leads have a good chemistry and the supporting cast are really solid. The dialogue is fresh and keeps enough of the good lines from the source material to ensure that nobody is dull to listen to.

And the end result is just a little…meh…

Yes I could pick holes – Hathaway’s accent is not necessarily the best and given that regional identity is such strong part of Emma’s character it seems strange that the casting directors couldn’t find a good English actress but this and other minor niggles are not really things that make the whole thing so disappointing – though by the end of the movie you’ll be glad you never have to hear the sound effect of calendar pages turning again.

But despite all of this, this should be a great film so we return to the issue of how did this fail to convert the emotional heart of the book to the film? Firstly, a failure of representation – the point of Emma and Dexter’s relationship is that neither one of the communicates properly with the other, but readers know why because of the access to consciousness that the form grants. The  method that the film chooses to get round this is via the medium of distanced communication – things like phone calls, missed letters and diary entries. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this as a device it neglects an important rule of story-telling – namely, that the closer to the psyche you are the more emotionally invested you are going to feel. As a result, whilst all the relevant information is communicated necessary for a plot, the film feels much more emotionally flat.

A good example of how the transfer affects the relationship between Dexter and his mother. The book gives this much more depth, though still not a great deal, as we see how Dexter’s insecurities and relationships with women have been shaped by this glamorous woman who taught him how to make martinis. In the book this emotional weight gives some real depth to the scene where he turns up drunk to his mother’s house to see her whilst she is critically ill. His mother’s whiplash diagnosis of loving him but sometimes thinking that he isn’t very nice cuts him to the core. The resulting meltdown it gives way to feels consistent and develops Dexter’s character arc. In the film, not so much – due to time and plot constraints Dexter’s mother barely fits into the plot.

The film isn’t bad, in fact far from it and the execution is done, for the most part, very well indeed. But here’s the thing – so many people on Twitter, on blogs and in conversation said that this wasn’t what they had pictured. They had gotten it WRONG! Whilst some of this can be chalked up to the fanboys getting all protective I don’t think that’s the whole picture. Audiences couldn’t connect to this screen couple as we didn’t have the chance to get to know them. Twenty years compressed down into less than two hours just doesn’t have the same immersive factor that the book did and this is what left people feeling so emotionally disappointed.

An alternative path to have taken is one that could have been more interesting, the book as 20 episodes of a TV show could have given the story and the characters the necessary time to unfold and develop and allow the audience to feel like they could get to know Dexter and Emma. Yes, some would still have complained about it but there would have been more of a chance for us to care.

So, a good adaptation? Well, I suppose this one has been a bit of both, something that ended up limiting itself through its form in a way that didn’t allow accurate transposition across from the original. The film succeeded on all of the most basic levels, but on the level of soul – the often abstract quality that you know when you see this film version just didn’t have what it took.

Again, if you haven’t read the book go ahead and seek it out – it isn’t long and if you have an afternoon spare you will find you get through it really quite quickly. The book also nicely proves an important point, that just because something is popular doesn’t make it bad and, even for me, it is nice to see that quality writing can be popular. So, read the book first and if you feel compelled to, do take the time to seek out the film, though if you end up feeling that this wasn’t how you thought Emma and Dexter would be then I’ll be gracious enough to avoid saying I told you so.




P.S It would be borderline negligent for me not to heap some praise on Jim Sturgess as Dexter. A young actor, this could have been a break out role for him if the film had been the big success that everyone thought it would be. As it is, it is a sophisticated and gently tragic rendering of the character that really shows his talent. So…there we go….Next time I will try to do something I like, if only to stop myself getting too grouchy.