Photo credit: Thron Ullberg
I was nine when Where Eagles Dare
, with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, came to Molde, the small city where I grew up. The film was rated 15, so my little brother Knut and I had to stay home while our older brother, Per, went to see it. When he got home, he called the two of us into his room, closed the door and dimmed the light. Then he took us through the entire thing. About the Allied general being held prisoner by the Nazis, who has to be rescued if D-Day is going to be a success. About the impenetrable fortress in the mountains, the planning, the internal conflicts in Major Smith’s group. About the way Clint Eastwood smokes, and the fight on the roof of the cable car. All 156 minutes of it. By the time I left his room, I knew that the film I had just played in my head was better than any of the Tarzan films I had ever seen.
It was thanks to Alistair MacLean, of course, who wrote both the novel and the film script. It was thanks to the actors and the director, Brian G. Hutton. And it was thanks to my big brother, who was and is a fantastic storyteller. But — and this is something I didn’t think about at the time — it was also thanks to me. As both a storyteller and a reader, what I have learned is that an author’s story only really comes into being in its meeting with a reader, a listener, a viewer. That the written or spoken word can only take you, as a reader, so far; it gives you the associations you need, but you have to direct the rest of the film yourself. It is in the reader’s spontaneous dramatization of letters and words that a story is created, new and slightly different with every reader the text reaches.
This is why no story — regardless of whether the writer is a genius or not — is ever better than what is determined by the reader’s experience, imagination, creativity, and desire, not to mention their patience in interpreting it. Take the label “misunderstood author.” It is only ever used seriously when a reader decides that they have finally understood a particular author, and illustrates my point well: this new reader has used the same source material to direct a different, better film than those who came before them. In fact, even a fundamentally mediocre writer can be read as better than they were in their time, because with the spirit of a new age, new knowledge or cultural curiosity, a work can be raised from the place on the rubbish heap that it previously seemed to deserve. To put it bluntly: the reader is better than the author. Paul McCartney once said that the line, “She came in through the bathroom window protected by a silver spoon,” was just something he thought seemed cryptic and cool. That doesn’t mean that I, as a listener, can’t use it and its context to create a story better than the one Paul McCartney may have intended. The reader is his or her own author. That isn’t to say that there is no distinction between good and bad authors; even the best directors need good scriptwriters.
I realized that Macbeth seemed to have more legitimate and illegitimate children than a traveling musician.
Many authors — myself included — like the illusion that the books we have written can, in themselves, give us eternal life. But the stories printed on the pages of a bookshelf are dead, regardless of how good they are. The only living things are the different versions of the same stories contained in their readers’ memories, or which occur when the books are taken down from the shelf and read.
Then, of course, there are the dead and forgotten stories that indirectly gain a longer — albeit secret — life by spawning, like parents or grandparents, new stories. And then there are the fully living stories from which an entire family tree has grown. With that, we have arrived — via Clint Eastwood and my big brother — at William Shakespeare.
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When I was asked to write a novel based on one of Shakespeare’s plays, I said yes on one condition: that I got Macbeth
. Like most Norwegians, I had a much closer relationship with Henrik Ibsen
than with William Shakespeare, but I had seen a production of Macbeth
in my youth, and had also seen Roman Polanski’s film version, which led me to read a Norwegian translation of the play. When I later saw Brian De Palma’s Scarface
, its origins were so obvious that even I could see them, and I realized that Macbeth
seemed to have more legitimate and illegitimate children than a traveling musician. And, in the same way a musician plays everything from pure cover versions to thinly veiled copies of pop classics, authors stand in debt to both their predecessors and their contemporaries. Literary scholars like to claim that books talk to one another, but the reason they narrow their focus so considerably may be down to the fact that books are their world. If we take a moment to look up, we can see that all types of stories communicate with each other: books, films, theater pieces, song lyrics, stand-up comedy, visual art, journalism, history, political rhetoric, nonfiction.
once said that the raison d'être of a novel is to do what nothing but a novel can. It’s a nice notion, but I’m not sure I agree with it. I can’t, for example, see that Cormac McCarthy is doing anything fundamentally different in his novel No Country for Old Men
than the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are doing in their version. Despite this, both novel and film work wonderfully. Perhaps it’s because our generation is one that consumes stories on a large scale, so conditioned and so overfed that we welcome any new, formally innovative approaches. As a result, we have no problem either digesting or accepting a film directed such that it can be read like a book, nor a book written such that it can be experienced like a film. Why?
we might ask. If new forms don’t provide new content, doesn’t that mean the new form is redundant? That much seems obvious.
But neither the film nor the novel of No Country for Old Men
feels redundant. The same way a second reading of a good book rarely feels redundant. The same way neither Joe Cocker’s interpretation of “With a Little Help From My Friends” nor Ryan Adams’s version of “Wonderwall” feel redundant. Probably because the repetition of the story in these examples made the story new, not just in its meeting with the reader, but also in the meeting with a new voice telling the story.
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And so, you find yourself with a copy of Macbeth
in your hands, having agreed to write a novel based on a piece of world famous drama. All you need is an innovative approach, a personal interpretation, and a belief that the readers will take care of the rest. How difficult could it be? I don’t know, but this question of “How difficult could it be?” has been my motto ever since, at a fairly young age, I began to bite off more than I could chew — something that has led alternately to relative successes and nasty losses. Since the losses are forgotten more quickly than the successes, I’ve retained both the motto and my naïveté. OK. I decide to use the bones of the story and see where it takes me, and, rather than getting bogged down in a time-honored analysis of Shakespeare’s characters, to follow my own instincts about what drives them, what their deeper — and less deep — motives might be. I want to do away with all the Shakespearean poetry, the famous lines, and change the place, time, and context from 11th-century Scotland to a corrupt city troubled by dark 1970s criminality, industrial pollution, Cold War paranoia, heroin addiction, and power struggles for jobs like police commissioner. While the three witches brewing a potion represent the supernatural elements of Shakespeare’s play (and how the experts’ interpretations of their metaphorical meaning and connection to the goddess Hecate differ wildly), they are very much real in my version: chemists manufacturing dope and working for the city’s drug baron and puppet master, Hecate.
In my novel, Lady is a former prostitute turned brothel madam whose life goal is to become a respectable — or, at the very least, respected — woman. With that in mind, she runs a casino frequented by the city’s politicians and celebrities, who lend her their ears. She and her much younger partner, Macbeth — leader of the police action group in the fight against drug gangs — love one another loudly and passionately, but they are a mismatched couple. Macbeth is the police hero who supports the new police commissioner, Duncan, and his fight against corruption, whereas Lady is more pragmatic as long as she can have some political influence. But then Macbeth — and Lady — realize that Macbeth can replace Duncan as police commissioner if they are willing to commit a bloody crime.
Morality and loyalty. Loyalty to the one you love against loyalty to the society you serve. Personal ambition and a thirst for power against personal integrity, morality, and the public interest. How feelings come first, making our decisions for us, and pushing the search for moral arguments and excuses for those decisions into second place. A thirst for power that creates a king, but which is also the drug — the witch’s brew — driving them toward a personal darkness of self-reproach. That kind of thing. I can begin.
I shout to my brothers that they can come in; I close the door, dim the lights, and start to tell the story. I don’t know if it’s quite what William Shakespeare or Alistair MacLean had in mind, but right now the story is mine, putty in my hands. Right now, I can imagine that I am creating the Macbeth
Shakespeare tried to write. I’ll sober up once my brothers have gone and I turn up the lights, of course. I’ll humbly bow to the master and let the illusion pass. But maybe that’s why authors spend so much time on writing, in order to find themselves in that room, surrounded by legends, and imagine that it is where they belong. There’s a memory from childhood that clings on. As I headed home, finally old enough to have watched Where Eagles Dare
in all its glory, I realized that — despite Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, and the film’s legendary status — my big brother’s telling was better. Because I had made it better. The same way I hope my readers will make Macbeth
into the very best version it can be: a story that is not entirely redundant.
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is a musician, songwriter, and economist as well as a writer. His Harry Hole novels include The Redeemer
, The Snowman
, The Leopard
, and Phantom
, and he is also the author of several standalone novels and the Doctor Proctor
series of children’s books. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Glass Key for best Nordic crime novel. He lives in Oslo. Macbeth
is his most recent book.