On Tuesday night Scott Campbell watched the characters in his novel walk and talk, frown and dance, paint and make love on a movie screen at a major international film festival. That’s stuff you can see people do at any film festival. For Campbell, it was astounding, since he needed subtitles to figure out what had happened to his book.
Campbell doesn’t speak German. He lives in Jamaica Plain and works as director of communications at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. And an adaptation of his novel, “Aftermath,” about a distressed and inhibited wealthy Boston family, has become the film “Im Winter ein Jahr” (“A Year Ago in Winter)” before the manuscript itself has managed to find an American publisher.
So there Campbell sat the other evening, in a capacious Canadian theater at the Toronto International Film Festival, marveling at and moved by the irony of it all.
Campbell joins a solid group of living local authors whose work has been turned into a movie — Scott Heim and Dennis Lehane, for starters.
Movie producers and film studios often buy the rights to books that never become movies. Campbell’s is another case entirely. “I don’t know anybody who’s ever had it happen this way,” he said after the film’s world premiere. “It’s intense.”
Campbell’s story presents up-close the vagaries of transforming a novel into a movie. He wrote it after a friend of his, a painter, told him about his experience doing a portrait for a family whose son had died suddenly. They wanted him to put the surviving daughter and the dead son in the same piece, and he forged an intense emotional connection with the daughter.
While Campbell’s agent was trying to get the novel published in the United States, a friend of the agent (another agent) was interested in acquiring the rights for her client, the German director Caroline Link, whose film “Nowhere in Africa” won the foreign-language Academy Award five years ago.
When the process of bringing “Aftermath” to the screen began in 2004, the movie was conceived as an English-language production with Link in charge. For prospective Hollywood backers, there were some casting problems (the actors weren’t famous enough) and commercial concerns (the story wasn’t spectacular enough), and it looked as if things would never get off the ground. Then Link realized that if she really wanted to film Campbell’s book, why wait for Hollywood’s approval? She went home, where she’s a well-respected director, wrote the script in German — shifting the scene to suburban Munich — and began production.
“I’m such an impatient person,” Link said, trying to decipher an hors d’oeuvre at a reception after the film’s premiere. “It sounds stupid when I say it, but in Germany it’s my name that finances a movie, and I can cast whoever I want.”
Campbell had wanted to attend a press screening the day before but was turned away for having improper credentials. So Tuesday’s premiere was his first time seeing Link’s completed film. He hadn’t even been able to read a script. Earlier in the afternoon, he was nervous about the changes Link might make. He peppered a critic who’d seen the film with questions about the differences between the book and the film. Yes, the son’s cause of death is unchanged. No, the painter’s homosexuality is not as clearly defined.
For the premiere, Campbell brought his domestic partner, Richard MacMillan, and Louis Briel, the friend whose story was the basis for the book. The author wore a suit and tie and maintained his good humor despite being nervous.
Campbell is handsome in a distinguished sort of way, but he was unsure about how to tackle the red carpet. And the throng of photographers stood behind a barricade uncertain about whether to tackle him. A few flashbulbs went off, almost by accident. A few more after he posed with Link.
When the film, which is still seeking American distribution, was over, the audience enthusiastically applauded.
“Whatever Caroline did, she really captured my journey as a painter through Scott’s book,” said Briel, wiping his eyes. “That surprised me.” He stopped for a moment to collect himself then offered a concise, culturally apt description of his mood: “I’m verklemmt.”
So was Campbell. He and one of the producers talked about what they loved about the movie. But during the ride to the reception, he sat in the back of the car, his forehead beaded with sweat, not speaking. He looked winded.
“I started writing this book, what, six, seven years ago, and it’s so strange, in a good way, to see it go on this journey,” he said. “I’m actually glad the movie got made in Germany, because Hollywood is such a complicated place, too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s pretty thrilling to see somebody of Caroline’s caliber take hold of your stuff and bring it alive. It’s just kind of hard to respond right now.”
As for the book’s availability in English (a German version is forthcoming in Europe), Campbell has decided to publish it himself through his website, www.scottcampbellbooks.com. But the movie has changed everything for its source material. In a sense, the book has been found in translation.