Adaptation from the page to the screen is always a tricky task. What works on the page doesn’t always translate to the screen. There is a fine balance that must be struck between remaining faithful to the original intent and accommodating the requirements of the moving image. Does the original lend itself to adaption? Then there is the intent behind the adaptation, does the filmmaker have something to add to the original work?
All of these things are factors in Christian Sparkes’s debut feature Cast No Shadow, an adaptation of Joel Thomas Hynes’s “Say Nothing Saw Wood”. Sparkes was looking for material for his first feature film and had always been a fan of Hynes work. Something in “Say Nothing Saw Wood” caught his attention. “When I read it, a lot of the things I really liked in it were the flashbacks of childhood. There are so many rich details and I have always been a big fan of coming of age films in general, especially the ones that are very social realistic, very dark, but at the same time as beautiful as they are dark.”
For Sparkes, the process of adapting the novella to the screen was a very organic process. The prominent themes from “Say Nothing Saw Wood” “along with a couple of other threads from different books just jumped off the page. I could see that you could weave all these things together. Then in another book Joel has, a poetry book called “Straight Razor Days”, there’s a line where a father and son are walking and the boy hears a trickle of water down a drain. He asks his dad what it is and the dad says ‘that’s just a troll taking his year long pee.’ Kind of a funny line, and it’s just one line and then the thing goes on, but I was pacing around my office at home and, however creativity works, within like half an hour, I was like, Oh! There could be a troll, the boy pays off the troll that’s a manifestation of his fears, and you could mirror that figure with the father. There was another poem about a boy who paints things chrome, and then knowing a bit about fairy tale lore, I was like, what if he paints things gold? He could pay off the troll and then that could be used as a central, really rich metaphor for the movie.”
I’ve always been a fan of coming of age films, especially the ones that are very social realistic, very dark, but at the same time as beautiful as they are dark.
Sparkes brought his interpretation of the material to Hynes hoping that he would be game to write the screenplay, an interesting choice given his reinterpretation of the material. “There’s not a lot of writers I think, that if someone came up to them and said ‘here’s what you’ve done and I kind of want you to repurpose that and do it this way…and then add a troll’” that would be interested. “It takes, I think a bit of shedding of ego to do that, but at the same time, most artists know when they hear a good idea. I guess I was just able to sell him on it in a way that sounded compelling. I kind of did my homework and I had written a fairly elaborate outline of how I could conceive out working before I even pitched him on it, so that he could see on paper exactly how the different pieces would thread.”
Hynes’s written work has a distinctive voice that is carried over into the film, but Cast No Shadow also displays a new sensibility from the book brought to the table by Sparkes. A big part of the feel of “Say Nothing Saw Wood” lies in the dialect of the speech, which is grounded in the rustic, rural Newfoundland. In the film this “was important for us to show off. We wanted the landscape to be like a character in the film.” Shooting on location helped to balance “the stark east coast vibe” of the novella with “the slight fairy tale element,” creating a happy medium between the two interpretations of the source material.
There’s not a lot of writers that if someone came up to them and said ‘here’s what you’ve done and I kind of want you to repurpose that and do it this way…and then add a troll’ that would be interested.
The fairy tale element grew out of Sparkes’s desire to make the central character more sympathetic by reducing his age from around his mid twenties, to fifteen/sixteen and then finally to twelve with the casting of Percy Hynes-White as the lead. While “some might argue that [Hynes-White’s character] is not overly likeable, at least he was young enough for it not to be his fault. He’s still kind of developing. So that was important to me to kind of make the character sympathetic because if you have a character that you don’t really like from the beginning, they’ve done all this bad stuff and it starts compounding, you’re really not going to like him by the end.” This highlights the most important difference between page and screen: playing to the audience, conceding something of what they want, plays a larger role in films than in books. However, in this instance, playing to the audience helped to strengthen the fantasy element that Sparkes had already envisioned. A younger lead “only helped to make the troll work better” as it became a central motif of the film.
And it is around the age of the lead that the major tone of the film is built, one that is dark and mystical rather than grounded in reality. With this established, the fariytale aspects began to trickle through the rest of the film. The character Alfreda “is kind of the classic witch on the hill character. Once we had that fairy tale kind of feel going, she just kind of started taking shape that way. We talked about in the writing, maybe we’ll realize her in a way that is like the boy sees her, or the way that the kids in the neighbourhood would talk about an old recluse. We twisted reality a bit.”
Cast No Shadow is a study in different interpretations. Beginning with Hynes’s version of a real event, to the film that is Sparkes’s interpretation and Hynes’s reinterpretion of “Say Nothing Saw Wood” and a collection of poems, Sparkes hopes that viewers will be able to create their own understandings. It starts with the title, which popped into his head while he was sitting down for another film. “It’s easy for me to justify what that means in relation to the film, but I let other people do that work themselves.”