British novelist and screenwriter William Boyd doesn’t buy the conventional wisdom that a writer should never adapt his own books. His long list of industry credits includes scripts based on his own work (the miniseries “Any Human Heart”), novels by the likes of Evelyn Waugh (“Scoop”) and biographies (“Chaplin”). “Restless,” the two-part miniseries Boyd wrote from his 2006 novel of the same name, premieres Dec. 7 on Sundance.
It stars “Downton Abbey’s” Michelle Dockery as Ruth Gilmartin, a young woman who discovers that her mother (Charlotte Rampling) was a spy involved in the British Security Coordination, a covert mission to sway American public opinion toward intervention in the war in Europe. Next is another novel, as yet untitled, about a better-known British spy: James Bond.
“Restless” focuses on an overlooked chapter in the history of World War II. Can you explain what the BSC did?
We forget, eight out of 10 Americans didn’t want to join the war. America was very isolationist. Public opinion was pretty intransigent, so all these [British] agents were sent over to try to feed stories to the media. One of the most interesting developments that I used in the novel is they were trying to establish the fact that Hitler and Nazi Germany were interested in South America and Mexico. They planted in the briefcase of a German consular official a fake map showing South America divided up into five new German areas of administration. It was all elaborate fakery to say this war is not just a European one, it’s become global.
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How did you discover the subject?
I was asked to write a film about the relationship between [President Franklin] Roosevelt and [British leader Winston] Churchill. In the course of my research, I came across these references Roosevelt made to Churchill’s dirty tricks, and I thought, “What is he talking about?” I followed the trail and got to BSC. I found a book on the Web printed by a small military press. There were only 12 copies originally. The book is a gold mine because it’s about 400 pages long and details every bit of scurrilous dirty trickery that went on, but it was only for the eyes of a few certain key operatives. Nobody seems to have noticed it. It was one of these lucky breaks you get as a novelist, and I exploited it to the fullest.
“Restless” is also a story about the personal toll of being a spy.
The thing you lose is trust. You cannot function as a normal human being if you don’t have that element in your life. The spy loses that, and I wanted to investigate the prices paid. So many serious novelists have written spy novels, from Joseph Conrad to Graham Greene. I suspect because the abstract nouns the genre deals with are so potent: duplicity, betrayal, lying, identity.
You’re also working on the new James Bond novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
I am being annoyingly tight-lipped. It’s 1969 and Bond is 45 years old. This is not the young hotshot spy anymore, this is a man who’s maybe not quite as limber or confident as he was in 1953. There’s no mountains full of atom bombs or a bubonic plague that will destroy the world. It’s an ordinary mission for a middle-aged spy that goes hideously wrong.
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Did you get a lot of leeway in terms of the story?
You have total freedom. There’s no point in asking somebody like me or ["Devil May Care" author] Sebastian Faulks to write a Bond novel if you then say “You have to do this.” There are certain boxes you have to tick, but within those relatively few parameters you’re free to invent your own story. That’s one reason I went back to read all the novels again. In those novels was a lot of information about Bond and his tastes, his moods, his dark side. So that’s what I’ve really plundered the novels for rather than cars with ejector seats.
You are unique in that you regularly adapt your own novels for the screen.
The received wisdom, “Never let an author adapt his own book,” I think is wrong. As the novelist, you’re in a position to authorize yourself to be bold. And you can’t pay respect to yourself. I’ve directed a film myself, so I know the industry really well, from early script meetings to post-production.
So is it harder to adapt other people’s work, especially when it’s a well-known title like Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop”?
You are slightly more aware of people’s impressions of the book, but it comes down to an understanding of the two art forms. You can do anything in a novel. But when you move to the world of film, you’re suddenly in a world not of freedom but of constraints and impossibilities, compromises, and budget limitations.
In 1998, you and David Bowie hoaxed the art world with the fake biography “Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960.” Tell me about that.
I wanted to make something that was so real but utterly fictitious as an experiment to see how far you could push fiction into the world of the real. The book is the story of this tormented painter who commits suicide jumping off the Staten Island Ferry and who never sells a painting. David Bowie organized this huge party in Manhattan in Jeff Koons’ studio. One of the conspirators in the hoax was an English journalist, and he went around the party asking people if they knew Nat Tate. Of course, people, being people, said “yes” and dug a hole and jumped in it. People love the idea of a hoax, particularly when the people involved are rather pretentious, self-satisfied intellectuals.