“The secret of artistic entertainment is to drag people from one emotion to the other – the more extreme you can make it the better,” explains Louis de Bernières with a smile. The author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin knows a thing or two about emotional manipulation. His tale of lust and love in Cephallonia made his fortune in 1994 but he had little influence over the 2001 film adaptation, starring Nic Cage and Penélope Cruz, which was mauled by critics. At his publishers suggestion he followed up Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with a book for teenagers, Red Dog, based on the true story of a hitch-hiking canine in Western Australia in the Seventies. It too has now been adapted for the screen, and de Bernières is rather more pleased with this production. Over coffee in a sweltering office in central London, he shares his thoughts on mortality, the challenges of adapting a novel for the screen and why the joy of travel is finding the stories you couldn’t make up.
GQ: Red Dog may have been written for a young audience but it deals honestly with the characters’ mortality. Do you think death continues to be a taboo for family audiences?
Louis de Bernières : I’ve always been very preoccupied with death. If you don’t bear your own death constantly in mind then you don’t have any sense of proportion about your own life. As the years go by more and more of the people who you love become dead people – you’re heading inexorably in that direction yourself. Children think about it as well but they don’t necessarily understand. My little boy is only seven and he thinks about it a lot but if I tell my daughter that her Grandma is dead and under the ground in the churchyard she says: “Well, can we get her out?”
Have you ever cheated death yourself?
Once the throttle spring broke on my Morris Minor. The car was going at maximum speed down this street in Thetford. You wouldn’t believe how fast a Morris Minor goes with no throttle spring. It was just going faster and faster and it didn’t matter how much I put my foot on the brake or tried to change down, I couldn’t stop the car. As a mechanic I should have thought of this earlier, but I only just in time thought to turn off the ignition! That was horrifying. I thought I was going to meet my death against a large monument of the Duke of Wellington.
Many of your books are based on your experiences in other countries. Do you travel deliberately in search of stories?
No, if I travel looking for stories I never find them. I always think that if I travel something wonderful will happen, but more often than not it doesn’t. I’ve been travelling since I was 19. I cocked up being in the army so I fled to South America. I spent a year working in the outback on a cattle ranch and playing at being a cowboy. I’m still quite handy with a lasso. I met all sorts of characters there. There was a hunter named Pedro who worked with dozens of dogs and dressed in skins. There was a man who claimed to be the son of the devil. In that part of Colombia they believe very strongly in magic, especially the magic of twins. Somebody’s twin brother had died so they dug up the skull and were hiring it out for magic. It’s not the kind of thing you can make up!
What went wrong with the film adaptation ofCaptain Corelli’s Mandolin?
The director of Captain Corelli’s was originally going to be Roger Michell, but he had a heart-attack while on the Eurostar so they got in another director . Roger had asked me to write the script and I said no because I was working on a novel and didn’t feel I knew enough about scriptwriting. Of course, in retrospect I really wish I had! I didn’t really have any say over the film. Whenever they asked my advice they ignored it. I did have one confrontation with the new director John Madden. He wanted Captain Corelli to kill his German friend Gunther Weber, played by David Morrissey. I said, “This is completely out of character! Corelli wouldn’t do this!” He went ahead and filmed the scene anyway and then left it out. David’s never really forgiven me because he says it was his best scene!
What was it like on set?
Nic Cage was keeping himself to himself. He was being collected off the tarmac at the airport in a blacked-out limousine and hiding in his caravan most of the time. He emerged to shake my hand and then disappeared again. He was going through a bad time as I think he was involved in a custody battle over his children. Penélope Cruz was really sweet and quite happy to sit in a cafe with you and have a coffee.
Do you think filmmakers ever get adaptations of books right?
It’s tricky but there are lots of good examples. Gone With The Wind is a perfect example of a gigantic novel that became a superb film. Zorba The Greek is a great film and is probably more digestible than the book. I liked the film of Like Water For Chocolate – Laura Esquivel wrote both the book and the script, so that would explain that. There was a long television version of War And Peace with Anthony Hopkins which was bloody brilliant, but then a television series can do things more thoroughly than a film can.
Are you a good storyteller in person?
You need to know how to string an anecdote along and how to spin it out so that it gets funnier or weirder as it goes along. I’ve done quite a lot of performances as a musician and I nearly always tell jokes. I nicked most of them from Acker Bilk, the great clarinet player who wrote “Stranger On The Shore”. He’d tell these really stupid stories. For example, there were these two old people on the beach at Weston-super-Mare. One of them says to the other: “I’d really like an ice cream.” The old lady says: “I’d really like one too.” He says: “The kind with the chocolate bar sticking out of it.” She says: “Oh yeah, chocolate bar.” He says: “And crumbly chocolate bits.” She says: “Oh yes, crumbly chocolate bits.” They sit there for another ten minutes until he says: “Shall I go and get them then?” She says: “Oh yes, but don’t forget the chocolate bar or the crumbly chocolate bits!” He tells her he won’t forget and wanders off. An hour and a half later he comes back and he’s got two meat pies. She says: “You silly old fool! I knew you’d forget the chips!”
Can you recommend a good book?
I had a lift from an Albanian taxi driver today and he reminded me that there’s an Albanian writer called Ismail Kadare who wrote a stonking great book called The Siege. It was first published in the Seventies but I read it a few months ago and was really impressed by it.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Never lose hope.
Originally published by British GQ.