I first saw Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1952 film Ikiru as an 11-year old Japanese boy growing up in England, and it made a huge impression on me. I watched it repeatedly as I grew up and there’s no doubt this movie – or perhaps the unique vision it contains – helped shaped my ideas about how I should go about living my life. The film certainly had a strong influence on the novels I went on to write, especially The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and recently, Klara and the Sun.
It was around fifteen years ago that I began to wish someone would make a new version of Ikiru, one with its setting moved from post-war Tokyo to post-war London. This version would be largely faithful to the story that had made such an impact on me, but the original material would be married to a moving study of a certain kind of ‘English gentleman’ from that era – a topic that has always interested me.
Then one evening in 2018, after going to a small dinner in London, my wife and I were sharing a taxi home with the other guest – the great British actor Bill Nighy – and I had an epiphany moment. If Bill Nighy could be persuaded to play the central role, everything would fall into place.
The hosts of our dinner had been Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen, the formidable husband and wife film production team, and I contacted them a few days later with my idea. At this point, I wasn’t intending to participate myself: I’m not a regular screenwriter, and I was then up to my neck trying to complete Klara and the Sun. I just really wanted someone to make this movie of my dreams. They were immediately taken with the idea, and, fortunately, so was Bill Nighy. Then before long, despite my unfinished novel, I was persuaded by them to attempt at least one draft of a screenplay.
Much has been said about the differences between writing for the screen and for the page, so I won’t go into that here. But the big revelation for me was the contrast between working from original ideas – as I’d always previously done – and doing an adaptation. I found the experience surprisingly – and qualitatively – different. There’s something fascinatingly split-personality about adaptation. You revere the original and want to bring it to a new audience in all its glory. At the same time, it becomes necessary to develop a cold, ruthless side that says: ‘No, that part’s too long. That speech is too didactic. That’s boring. That’s too sentimental.’ It’s the ability to keep in balance – and to make as creative as possible – these two seemingly opposing instincts that I found key to doing this kind of work at all well.
This screenplay – and the finished film, wonderfully directed by Oliver Hermanus – has at its heart a question present in a number of my novels: ‘When you know the time left to you is brief, what things become truly important in life?’ The film is also, like many of my books, preoccupied with the notion of duty and the attempts, on the part of relatively humble characters, to fulfil their sense of it. But this isn’t a case of my own thematic preoccupations imposing themselves over Kurosawa’s material. Rather, as I’ve suggested, it’s Ikiru that influenced my novels. Writing the screenplay for Living has been for me the completing of a circle.
Read the screenplay here.