An interview with Lionel Shriver, whose novel has been turned into a film that goes into wide release this week.
We Need to Talk About Kevin expands to more theaters this week. The movie, based on a 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver, follows Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother of Kevin (Ezra Miller), who committed a massacre at his high school, as she tries to decide if she was responsible for turning him into a monster--or if he was one all along. The novel is an unflinching look at a set of emotions that are often considered unacceptable for polite conversation, including the failure of mothers to bond with and to love or trust their children. We spoke to Shriver about what it's like for a novelist to hand her work over for adaptation, why you can leave your country of origin but not transcend it, and why anyone has children in an era of widely available birth control.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is coming near the releases of two other movies about shame and disgust, Steve McQueen's Shame and Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman's Young Adult. Do you think these are emotions we wall off as much as we can, and when we're forced to deal with them, cope with them all at once as Eva seems to in her letters to her husband Franklin?
By and large, when films, or for that matter books, break new ground or go into territories that previously other people have avoided, it makes it a little easier for others to come along and explore those same things. For example, I have hopes that a comedy like 50/50, or ... The Big C, might make it a little easier to sell the rights to my [health care] novel So Much For That to film, because suddenly it's okay to do stories that involve cancer. But you never know, whether in opening a window, it suddenly closes again because people think we've now done that.
Is it difficult to turn your work over to someone else for adaptation?
In times past, I was inoculated against that anxiety because I sold any number of options to previous books and they never turned into films. Once I got the message that your chances of getting a film made from one of your books are lower than Richard Branson personally inviting you to the moon, I relaxed. There was no reason to be concerned about what they were going to do to my work because they were never going to do anything to my work. Savvy authors take the money and run...they're giving you a little dosh for nothing.
How do you feel about the movie?
I am pleased with how it turned out. I think it is a far better film than I had any reason to expect them to be able to make...it doesn't make up all that much, and I think it's true in spirit and intention. The one difference I would cite, which I expected, is it's a little more understood that Kevin was wicked from birth, where in the book that's a major point of ambivalence. And I think there's a moral sophistication that film just cannot achieve in the same way.
Throughout the novel, Kevin insists on the basic meaninglessness of everything that everyone around him sees as important. Is there an extent to which you think Kevin is right about the emptiness of it all?
Well, yeah. He is right. One of the things that's so chilling about that kid is he's pretty smart, and he has capacity to observe adult hypocrisy, which is pretty common to smart adolescents. I think that's one of the hard parts about being a teenager is you're just old enough to see all the holes in the adult world around you. But you're growing up anyway. And you're not old enough to have any positive substitute, so it's very bleak. So you don't feel powerful enough to create an alternative reality, but you're smart enough to see there's so much wrong with the world your parents have created that you're not eager to participate, you don't want to join. It's what makes adolescents so apocalyptic.
I'm particularly interested in Eva's internationalism, especially given that you are yourself an expatriate. Is part of the point of the novel to suggest that there's a uniquely American kind of malevolence that it's impossible to inoculate yourself against? Or is Eva's problem that she loves America too much to entirely let go of the country and the pain it's capable of inflicting?
She's not that different from Kevin in that she can't help but be American...you can't just choose a different nationality. You can't change fact. She's tried to opt out of her country, but you can't really do that. It's a very West Wing impulse, and meant to be trite. If you have had much to do with liberal intelligentsia in the U.S., they like to think they are above their own country, and they often have contempt for their compatriots, and they think they're better. They think that being super-critical of the United States exempts them. When they talk about Americans, they don't think they're talking about themselves. They're the same people who are always vowing if Bush wins the election, they're moving to Italy. They never move to Italy.
I'm also curious about how legitimate we're supposed to feel Eva's claim to her Armenian heritage is: Is it another affectation?
It is an affectation in so far as much as grasping after one's roots is an affectation. It's too big a country and too fractured a country to find an identity. Being American doesn't cut it. It's not specific enough. You're still lost. You need a sub-identity. That's everywhere. Maybe it's being Jewish. Being Armenian, because it's a small expatriate community, has a gratifying specificity to it...When writing Eva, that's where I was in some ways rooted in my own earlier history as an ex-pat, and I would have been guilty of the same things as Eva is. Especially when I first started living abroad, I was self-conscious about being American, and imagined if I was sufficiently ashamed of it, people would regard me as a non-American. Of course, that's ridiculous.