Culture Street

By Sophia Whitfield
As I chat with S.J. Watson from his north London home it is the early hours on a Thursday morning. With coffee in hand he apologises for the dog barking in the background. He has lived in north London, the setting for his bestselling novel, for over twenty years.

S.J. Watson’s debut novel Before I Go To Sleep, published after he attended the first Faber Academy 'Writing A Novel' course, is an international bestseller sold into more than 30 countries. Watson had written an unpublished novel but put it aside wanting to start the course fresh with a new idea.

A tip off from the publishing world alerted producer Liza Marshall to Watson’s book before it was published. She quickly read a proof copy before passing it on to award-winning UK director Rowan Joffe. Both loved the book and through apparent subterfuge sent an email to Watson requesting the film rights. This week Before I Go To Sleep will be released in Australian cinemas.

Starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth it is the story of a woman who wakes up every day remembering nothing—the result of a traumatic accident in her past—until one day, new terrifying truths emerge that force her to question everyone around her. Every morning her husband has to remind her who he is and that they are married.

Watson has seen the film a number of times and says he loves it. He had little to do with the film adaptation which stays true to his story. Marshall and Joffe have not deviated much from the original in this retelling of his thriller but have used slightly different devices that work better in a visual retelling. During the film Nicole Kidman diarises her life by talking into a camera each morning creating new memories of her life. What did Watson think of the use of a camera as a visual diary rather than the journal which Christine uses in the book?

“The visual diary made perfect sense.” Watson replies. “It saves the film from endless shots of Christine sitting at her desk writing in her diary. It was an inspired addition to the film and one that adds interest.”

Watson has a background as a clinical scientist although he insists he was never involved in diagnosis. It is clear from his storyline that he has observed a number of medical conditions. Many of the more harrowing scenes in the book are not shown in the film. Two stood out, one is Christine’s visit back to the hospital where Watson gives a graphic description of anguished patients locked inside their rooms in various states of undress. The other is a moving scene involving a child with a disability who Christine watches trying to eat with her parents at a restaurant. Why does he think these were left out of the film?

“The scene in the hospital was filmed.” Watson confirms. “However it took away from the pace of the film so in the end was left out.” He muses that a book and film are two very different mediums. These two scenes add texture and background in the book which is not necessarily needed in the film. “In the book it was important to show that people trapped by their physical and mental conditions could still reach their potential.” The isolation that is revealed in the book is shown differently in the film.

Throughout the film there are London landmarks but the home in north London occupied by Christine and Ben is not your classic London home. Watson says it had to give the impression of being cut off from the world adding to Christine’s fear of her situation. He liked the idea in the book of someone being surrounded by people in London and still feeling alone. “For the film to work the house had to be isolated.” Watson agrees that Joffe chose the best possible location for this to be effective.

Watson seems delighted with the film adaptation. “My favourite moment in the film is so brief you could miss it.” He describes the scene in which Ben is attempting to comfort a hysterical Christine on the driveway of their home. Ben briefly looks up at the house next door hoping the neighbours have not heard. Watson says it is such an English thing to do and such a strikingly perfect response.

For now Watson is working on his second novel which has similar themes of identity and fragility. He is keen to continue exploring the masks people wear to protect them from life’s ravages.

Before I Go To Sleep is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday.

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