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Film of Joe's novel surfaces

PUBLISHED: 09:54 23 March 2011

Joe Dunthorne

Joe Dunthorne

Archant

Described as a cross between J.D. Salinger and Adrian Mole, now former UEA student Joe Dunthorne's debut novel has been turned into an acclaimed new film. SIMON PARKIN reports.

Submarine was written by Joe Dunthorne while he was studying in Norwich, juggling finishing a Masters in crea-tive writing at the UEA with his debut novel.

It traces the fortunes of Oliver Tait, “a typically sex-obsessed 15- year-old boy who lives in his own world”, as he goes on a mission to save his parents marriage and lose his virginity.

The ensuing cocktail of adulterous Capoeira instructors and pimply coming-of-age humour set in Swansea caught the attention of an agent, who swiftly bagged Dunthorne a book deal.

The novel gained rave reviews, even if some found Oliver with his raging teenage hormones and casual cruelty all too real. It won Dunthorne the Curtis Brown Prize, awarded to the best prose fiction student on the UEA’s Creative Writing MA.

Now its been made into a film by first-time director Richard Ayoade, best known as Mos in cult sitcom The IT Crowd, and with a soundtrack by Alex Turner.

It confirms the writer as the UEA’s latest hot literary property and he certainly pleased wit the results. “Like lots of writers, I had always hoped to have my stories turned into film. In fact, when I first started writing, at 15, this was one of the reasons my stories failed — I had one eye on the film rights,” he wrote recently in The Guardian.

“My stories were set in exotic places I’d never visited and they were populated with the types of people I’d never met – hackers, models, gangsters. I see now that my fiction was ripping off my favourite films. I created facsimiles of characters from Pulp Fiction, Lost Highway, Strange Days, Trainspotting and I forced them to make unconvinc-ing cameos in my stories.”

When he started work on Submarine, he consciously decided unique strengths of the page. The story is told by an unreliable narrator, Oliver Tate. Most of the drama and comedy occur in the gap between what the character tells the reader and what the reader suspects to be true.

“This ambiguity is hard to sustain in film, where the reality we see on screen always dominates. So while I still daydreamed about a film adaptation, I had an excuse for why it could never happen,” he states. “So it was a surprise that, after the book was published, it got optioned by a production company. I was assured by everyone that I would hear no more about it. These projects get buried. Nothing ever gets made. Abandon hope.”

It wasn’t dropped however. Ayoade became attached to the project and started work adapting the book into a script. But there remained the question of how to put pages of internal monologue on to the screen. The obvious answer was voiceover.

“For research, we watched lots of films that use voiceover,” says the author. “Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Badlands, Manhattan — all great. Then there’s the famously excruciating original cut of Blade Runner, with Harrison Ford sounding sedated.”

The resulting film, which stars Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate with Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins as his parents and Paddy Considine as a new age guru, is a triumph, even if it differs from the book.

“I had accepted, pretty early on, that the film would need to be unfaithful to the book for it to work,” said Dunthorne. “I thought of it as my book’s evil twin — they share many characteristics but, while the book has time to carry the reader along through amiable digressions into language and character, the film must go for the jugular.

“It was fascinating to read each new draft of the script. As consultant, I did little more than try to ensure that the characters sounded like themselves.”

One thing that remains however is the character of Oliver seems to be a dreamer who divides opinion. “The most interesting thing about a lot of the reviews of the book was that people think he’s either abominable, such a nasty kid, or it’s just ‘yeah, he’s just a normal typical 15-year-old boy’. That’s certainly the angle I was coming at it from. You are a pretty nasty piece of work when you’re 15.”

Oliver isn’t all bad though, he is determined to trying to keep his parents’ marriage together and cares for his father who often stays in bed for days at a time due to depression. “He’s a funny mix of caring and thoughtful and also casually cruel and thoughtless. He’s ambiguous, which is what most people are.”

 Submarine is published by Penguin, priced £8.99.

 The film will be screened at Cinema City from March 25.

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