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Green Light in the City

D H Lawrence and Me

8 September 14 words: William Ivory
It's D.H Lawrence season folks (5 - 25 September). To get you in the mood Billy Ivory discusses his adaptation of the bearded mard arse...

I have a saying to which I’ve clung all my writing life: the louder you shout, the louder people shout back. And David Herbert Lawrence shouted very loudly indeed.  He shouted about sex and women and poverty and industrialisation and freedom and art and music; anything which caught his attention, really. But unfortunately, because of that tendency to give voice to his opinions so freely and so vigorously, Lawrence has, perhaps more than any other writer in English literature, been shouted back at.

He’s been pilloried, ridiculed and derided, as well as being accused of misogyny, phallic worship and plain bad art (for the record, he IS obsessed with his penis; but why shouldn’t he be? It matters to him, as it does to a great many men and his attempt to understand its significance - as a Simone de Bauvoir or an Erica Jong did with their sexual core – should not count against him).

Meanwhile, he has  gone out of fashion,  come back in for a while and then once more been consigned to the outer darkness of what middle class metropolitanism considers proper literature. Where he is now, I have no idea. What I can tell you, and this is true, is that DH Lawrence is the greatest English novelist of the twentieth century.

To adapt him into a screenplay and to adapt his masterpiece, Women in Love, no less, was therefore a terrifying proposition.

Yet I wanted to try. Partly, because I liked what Lawrence was as a writer; what he stood for, which was essentially, abandon and a lack of the cool, ironic, detachment which seems to so delight current, post modern audiences but which drives me mad.

Additionally, there was the fact that he was a Nottinghamshire lad and so am I.

But above all, I wanted to tackle Lawrence because he was my inspiration.  I failed my Eleven Plus, packed in at University without a degree and worked for a good while as a council dustman. But I never thought for one moment that I couldn’t be a writer. And a damn good one, too. Because DH Lawrence had done it. He had shown me that where you started was immaterial. It was where you ended up that counted. And by God, he’d ended up far, far from home.

That, I realised when I stood on the side of a mountain outside Taos near Santa Fe in New Mexico a few years ago and looked at the tiny wooden cabin in which he and Frieda had settled for a time on his epic travels.  This working class lad from Nottinghamshire, one in a room of nearly a hundred, had risen up, beyond the pits, beyond the poverty which surrounded him, had educated himself, had developed a philosophy around art and life and had written some of the greatest modern literature the world has ever seen. What is more, in a graphic demonstration that he did indeed practice what he preached, Lawrence had  arrived  at this tiny, isolated place, thousands of miles from Eastwood in order that he might at last find, “a different way of existing.” In other words, that he might, in the end, live his art. How could you not try and honour such a man?

Trouble was, I would have to confront my deeply held belief that adaptation was cheating; copying out, really. Except you can’t copy Lawrence out.  Because what is so key to him, is the bulk of him in fact, is the internal dialogue of his characters - and of himself - with their subconscious. And that won’t just lift off the page and into a screenplay. Why?  Well, the clue’s in the “screen” bit – with a film, no matter how complex the inner workings of your characters’ minds, their thoughts have to translate into something visible, something which can be watched.

Yet, while this process would undoubtedly be a challenge, it might also gave me the opportunity, to free Lawrence up a bit; to make his “inner” rather more “outer.” And that would be no bad thing - because some of Lawrence is bloody hard, some of it nigh on impenetrable and my fear has always been that it is this stuff which might scare people off and mean, therefore, that they miss the majority of his work which is visceral and elemental and not difficult, just brilliant.

Once comfortable with this idea of “loosening” the text, I quickly became convinced of the need to re-combine Women in Love with The Rainbow; to return to Lawrence’s original idea for the story of the Brangwen sisters (when he’d first set out, it was to write a two part novel called, The Sisters).

It made complete sense. Lawrence was looking at the effect of family, of parents, in shaping not just our core social values but also those around passion and sexuality and it was only by looking at the genesis of Gudrun and Ursula and properly understanding their relationships with Will and Anna, their parents, that one started to fully appreciate the essential themes of the books and, particularly, to make sense of the way in which the central quartet’s doomed relationship plays out in Women in Love.

This first decision became emblematic of my whole process with the screenplay. Because I realised that if I was to attempt Lawrence at all, it had to be in the most Lawrencian way. And this meant, ultimately, that my sole task must be to interpret the books so that their heartbeat could be felt; and Lawrence’s too. At which point, what happened where and in what order, seemed hardly to matter, so long as the collective consciousness of the novels emerged in the end...

And that’s what I did. I even used Lawrence’s short novella The Trespasser to give Gudrun a greater narrative arc in The Rainbow (from which she is largely absent) and utilised letters from Lawrence to his publisher and friends to furnish a life for Gerald Crich in the body of the first novel, too.

It was a wonderful and humbling experience.

This article was originally published by Dawn of the Unread. See their website for Lawrence-related stuff.

The D.H Lawrence Festival runs from the 5 - 25 September. See link for details on events


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