Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

Spy Kid

Scottish director David Mackenzie adapts Peter Jinks's novel Hallam Foe for the screen.

Bilge Ebiri


He had rarely paused to consider matters of class; as a
pervert he was above such vulgar forms of definition.
—Peter Jinks, Hallam Foe

Making drastic changes to a novel while adapting it for the screen is one thing, but doing so when the novelist is a close friend can induce new levels of anxiety. Scottish director David Mackenzie found himself in that situation when he decided to tackle Peter Jinks's acclaimed Hallam Foe, an offbeat story about a young Peeping Tom's decidedly odd journey to self-knowledge. Mackenzie and Jinks had known each other since sharing "a lovely big party flat" in Edinburgh many years ago; since then, the former had gained notoriety for 2003's Young Adam, itself an (impressively faithful) adaptation of Alexander Trocchi's cult 1954 novella, and the latter had become a novelist of some repute. "Peter's being a friend of mine was one of the reasons I considered doing his novel as a film," Mackenzie says, adding dryly: "But the thought that your good friend is about to have their work ripped up in front of them is also a bit awkward."

Initially, the novel and the film (retitled Mister Foe for its US release) unfold in similarly fablelike fashion. Hallam (Jamie Bell), the son of a seemingly wealthy landowner in Leicestershire, spends his time romping about his family's sylvan property in war paint and animal furs, spying on everyone around him—not so much out of perversion but rather from a compulsion to record their habits and rituals. He fancies himself something of an explorer, but despite his detached, wannabe-scientific approach to other humans, he seethes with bitterness and hatred for his father, Julius (Ciarán Hinds), and stepmother, Verity (Claire Forlani), both of whom he blames for the death of his mother some years ago. When his one true confidante, his older sister, Lucy (Lucy Holt), leaves the family for good, Hallam finds himself alone.

At this point, novel and film rapidly and radically diverge. In Jinks's work, Hallam finds himself exiled after his father blames him for sabotaging plans to redevelop the woods around their home. The novel then picks up Hallam a few years later. He's living in Edinburgh, working for a cancer charity—with the rooftops of the ancient city providing boundless opportunities for peeping. However, Hallam has learned to use his skills as a voyeur to peer into other people's lives and get their money for his charity, sometimes through extralegal means. He finds himself curiously fascinated by the private life of his boss, Kate (Sophia Myles), and is soon sucked into a bizarre romantic rivalry with her erstwhile lover Alasdair (Jamie Sives), a philandering photographer.

Mackenzie and coscreenwriter Ed Whitmore initially attempted to remain faithful to the novel. But fairly early on, they realized that Jinks's temporal jump might not work onscreen. "When you've built up so much emotional continuity and intensity, it would have been weird for a film to fade out and go forward so many years," the director says. "You'd almost have to recast the film, because you'd have a character going from his teens to his twenties." As a result, they sent Hallam directly to Edinburgh and followed his immediate arrival there. "It was the first truly big choice we made," the director observes.

All else followed from this decision. In the film, Hallam, humiliated after his stepmother seduces him, arrives in Edinburgh penniless and homeless. On the run from the cops one rainy night, he becomes enraptured by a chance sighting of Kate, who happens to be a dead ringer for his mother. He follows her to her job at a posh hotel and manages to get a job there washing dishes. "Now that we weren't following a twenty-three-year-old working for a cancer charity, it made sense for Hallam to have a bottom-of-the-rung job, the kind that you pick up on short notice," Mackenzie says. (The hotel Hallam works for also happens to be the one where the director himself worked when he was a teen, as a room-service waiter—a genuine coincidence, as the production only settled on the location after another venue fell through at the last minute.) They decided to make Alasdair a member of the hotel staff as well—one who lords his supposed class superiority over this lowly dishwasher. In effect, Mackenzie and Whitmore replaced the second half of the novel with a new vision. The novel transforms itself from a modern-day fable into a morality tale; the film, with its portrait of Edinburgh's magic skyline and an increasingly self-contained story, pushes even further into the realm of twisted fairy tales.

How did the author take it? Mackenzie notes that he values his friendship with Jinks too much to ever offend him. Luckily, the novelist was fully prepared for the inherent brutality of having his story adapted. "Peter let us get on with our film, and he never intervened, but I also made sure to show him every draft of the script," Mackenzie says, noting that the scene Jinks had the most difficulty with was the one in which Hallam makes love to his stepmother: "That came as a bit of a shock to him," the director recalls, with a chuckle. "He was surprised we took it that far."

Mackenzie is adamant that his changes were correct, but he admits to struggling with the decision: "Years and years ago, I remember attending a lecture with Volker Schlöndorff"—the great German director known for such adaptations as The Tin Drum, Swann in Love, and The Handmaid's Tale. "He said that the easiest adaptations to do were the most uncinematic ones, because then you were free to take the characters and basic elements and then put the book away. The ones that seemed most visual were the hardest ones to deal with, because you had to struggle over whether to stick to the story. Hallam Foe had a lot of cinematic elements, so it presented us with quite difficult choices."

In retrospect, the filmmakers' choices make sense. Mackenzie notes that he was always drawn to the rite-of-passage aspect of the story. "Coming-of-age films never seem to be radical enough," he observes. "Hallam is different—he is a really radical character, a genuine outsider—but he's also young and therefore redeemable in some way." By keeping Hallam eighteen years old, Mackenzie and Whitmore were able to focus on the peculiarities of the character's adolescence and not so much on his burgeoning adulthood: Now, when Hallam travels from the self-contained world of his family's estate to that of the hotel, he trades in one dysfunctional family for another—albeit a surrogate one. "I first pitched the film as an Oedipal adventure," Mackenzie recalls. Certainly, having your lead character sleep with the spitting image of his mother helps; tellingly, in Jinks's novel, it's Hallam's sister, Lucy, who is the look-alike. The resemblance between Lucy and Mom was an element Mackenzie had hoped to keep: "Our idea was to have the same actress play Mom, Kate, and Lucy," he says. Last-minute casting decisions claimed that notion, and Lucy is less present in the film.

But for all these changes, Hallam Foe and Mister Foe wind up in the same place, with a hint that their hero will adjust to some form of normal life, no longer focused on prying into other people's lives. "He decided that he liked the way she looked at him," Jinks writes, as Hallam prepares to leave after an intimate moment with Kate. The film ends on lengthy close-ups of Hallam as he wanders the city after a reconciliation with Kate, seemingly at peace in his own skin. These may feel like odd bits of wish fulfillment, given that by the finales of both book and film, Hallam has committed several serious crimes and pretty much humiliated and alienated everyone around him. Odd, but not quite wrong: After all, even Oedipal fairy tales can have happy endings.

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