When Your Book Becomes a Movie: A Talk with Stephen Amidon

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American author Stephen Amidon’s dark slice of Americana, Human Capital, caught the attention of Italian director Paolo Virzì, whose film version, Il Capitale Umano, became Italy’s best film of 2014. What happens when a story of greed, failure, and secrets in an American suburb takes on an Italian accent? The “Lefty from Livorno” made a few changes, but basically stayed true to Amidon’s powerful and riveting narrative.

Born in Chicago, Amidon has worked as a film critic and written six other novels, including The New City and two nonfiction books. The Washington Post named Human Capital one of the five best novels of 2004, and the adaptation won best film at the Italian Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards, and was selected to represent Italy as the best foreign film at the 2015 Oscars. I spoke to Amidon about what it’s like to see your book make it to the big screen.
When a book becomes a movie, I usually prefer one or the other, but this might be the first time I’ve liked both equally well. Why do you think your very American story translated so well to an Italian one?
The main reason is the great talent of the filmmakers, director Paolo Virzi and his cowriters Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo. I think they were able to draw out the novel’s universal themes—greed, ambition, the often-crippling ambitions we have for our children—nd translate them seamlessly into a setting that was very different from the novel’s Connecticut. I also think the Italy of today is undergoing many of the same crises and challenges that the United States was facing when the novel was originally set (2000–2001). Specifically, what is the human cost of this Faustian deal with the big banks that allows societies to finance a high standard of living? Just how much are people willing to sacrifice for financial security and social status? How do you raise a child in a culture that puts so much pressure on them to succeed?

What’s your favorite film adaptation of a book?
My favorite film is The Godfather, so I suppose it would have to be that, although my one attempt to read the book didn’t go too well. It’s a difficult thing to do, I think, this film adapting business. There are so many that don’t work! Sometimes I think that bad books are easier to adapt into strong movies than good ones. That said, I think Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt, Sideways) is a director who consistently transforms novels into strong films.

Your book and the movie are not so different, but it took on a new life in the Italian setting. When you were writing the book did you imagine it as a movie? Did you picture Ben Affleck and Angelina Jolie instead of the Italian actors?
I tend to visualize my novels as I write them, so I suppose in some way I am imagining them as a movie, though I certainly don’t write with a film adaptation in mind. Having your book adapted into a film is such a long shot that you have to be a bit crazy to set out with that in mind. So, no, I didn’t visualize actors, though I can safely say the characters I did imagine were not quite as attractive as the Italians who wound up playing them!

Was there anything in Paolo Virzì’s adaptation that particularly surprised, delighted, or annoyed you? Did you think, “Wow, that’s even better than I’d intended!” or “No, no, no, not what I had in mind at all!”
There was nothing that annoyed me, which is a remarkable thing to say, given what a risky undertaking it was. I supposed the thing that delighted me the most was the screenplay. I attempted to write a film version of the book not long after it came out and made something a mess of it, which led me to think it couldn’t be done.  But I think the way the screenwriters solved the book’s problem of multiple viewpoints is incredibly impressive. I was also deeply gratified by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s performance as Carrie (or Carla, in the film). She really captured what I intended with that character. A great performance by a great actress.

Did the story come from your imagination or real events?
Well, it grew out of my general observations of what was going on around me, but for the most part I made it up.

So what are you working on now?
Right now I am working a play that will be performed in Turin, Italy, next spring. It is called 6Bianca. It is a fascinating project, actually—it will be presented in six parts on consecutive weekends, like a television serial, but will be on the stage of the Teatro Stabile Torino and not the small screen. I have written the overall story and three of the episodes, and am working with a group of very talented young Italian writers on the other parts. I have also just finished a new novel, but I have no firm details on publication quite yet…

So you’re hooked on Italy now?
Absolutely. I had a brief love affair with the country when I was 19 and spent a semester in Venice as a college student, but I’d never returned, even though I lived in London for a dozen years. Having the country and its astonishing culture back at the center of my life is an unexpected but totally welcome gift. Obviously, the personal benefits are great—the Italians are nothing if not good hosts—but this renaissance is also allowing me new artistic avenues that have really challenged and benefitted my middle-aged soul.

Paolo Virzì’s film version of Human Capital is coming to a theater near you this month.

Cheri Passell is the director of iloveitalianmovies.com.

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