Brit lit still ‘the crude oil of Hollywood’

Xan Brooks, film critic for the British newspaper the Guardian, was in Greece this week to speak about «The Film of the Book» at events organized by the British Council in Thessaloniki and Athens. Despite a Greek name – Xan derives from Xanthos – Brooks has no connection with Greece and it was his first visit to the country. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his early days as a journalist at the magazine The Big Issue, his work at the Guardian, and the spate of British best sellers being made into films by Hollywood. Training ground The Big Issue, where Brooks worked in 1994-9, was an incredible training ground, he says. «It was a wing-and-a-prayer operation. You never knew if it was going work or if it was going to fold tomorrow. But it did seem to keep working and keep getting more and more influence and the circulation kept going up and it became a part of the cultural landscape in England. You felt you could try anything, and if you fell flat on your face, it was sheltered enough that you were all right, and if you did well, then it was visible enough that you’d be seen. It was a very strange but exciting sort of place to work. It gave me my start in journalism.» Brooks went on to do freelance work for other newspapers and magazines. In 1999 he started work at the Guardian, where he edits the paper’s film website. Has it taken his own journalism in a different direction? Does he find he’s writing more about film? «I kind of am,» says Brooks, «which saddens me a little bit, but that’s probably the way the business is. At The Big Issue, I was doing the film pages every week, but then I’d also do news features and other interviews, so it was much more varied.» Brooks is in Greece to talk about screen adaptations which, he agrees, are as old as cinema itself. «What’s changed,» he believes, «is the number of British books that are being made [into films] by Hollywood. In the last five years, there’s been a huge rush of British adaptations that have got American money and American stars and American directors and crew and distribution. And I think there are a couple of reasons for that. The first is the particular type of British book that they’re going for, which tend to be very accessible, easy reads – like the books of Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding – that fit neatly into genres. They’re either a thriller or, more likely, a romantic comedy. And those kind of successful contemporary British novels are very different from the successful contemporary American novel – or at least the ones that get the press attention. It is very different from people like Philip Roth or Don de Lillo or Jonathan Franzen, who are writing heavyweight novels of ideas. These are much more easy to translate into film. They’re much more plot-led, and character-driven and relationship-driven. So, therefore they’re a lot easier to convert.» The rise of international money is another factor Brooks credits with driving the «pure-blood» British film «almost close to extinction.» Such films can’t get distribution. So the compromise involves having American stars «and sometimes moving the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel over to America anyway, like ‘High Fidelity,’ where they’ve just transferred it from Holloway – which is a very specific area of north London, with its own absolute essence and particularities – and they move that to Chicago.» Brooks adds that he considers «High Fidelity» to be one of the more successful films made out of a British novel. The publishing and film industries work together more closely than they used to, explains Brooks. In the new global publishing conglomerates, he says, «books are inevitably seen as a franchise to be developed, or as a steppingstone to other kinds of merchandise.» Yet there’s still a market for films like Ken Loach’s «Sweet Sixteen,» which is so regional the first 15 minutes are played with subtitles even for English audiences. That’s because of Loach’s international reputation, says Brooks. «I worry about the next generation of those people, who are almost having to start from scratch. That’s why I guess the festival circuit is so important for those people. As long as there is a good European festival circuit where they can take it and show it to people and get international sales coming in, then that’s a good thing.» He sees more resistance to the Hollywood influence in Europe than in Britain, where the shared language makes people assume films are British when they’re not. «Notting Hill» struck him as a tourist-brochure view of what is «an incredibly exotic and interesting mix of cultures.»