EM Forster by Dora Carrington.
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The producer vowing to film E M Forster’s “unfilmable” novel

After spending three weeks in hospital with a suspected heart condition, Adrian Munsey decided to tackle The Longest Journey — the last unfilmed Forster novel.

When Adrian Munsey was an undergraduate student at King’s College, Cambridge in the mid-1960s, there was a strange wooden panel on the wall of his bedroom. “The novelist E M Forster lived here in 1897,” the panel read, which was odd, because E M Forster still lived in the building, in a room on the floor beneath Munsey.

Forster was by then 88 years old, living on support from King’s and doing very little. It was over 40 years since the author of Howards End and A Room with a View had published any fiction.

“Every morning he would walk across the front court,” Munsey told me recently over a hefty winter lunch at a café on the Farringdon Road, London. “I’m pretty sure most people thought he was dead.”

Munsey himself is now 67: a bright, charming and open individual whose career has taken him from teaching in art schools to directing, composing and producing for TV and film.

“Forster had written about India and his father died when he was very young; I’m half Indian and my father died when I was ten. I don’t want to get too psychological about it but there was something that drew me to his work,” he says.

After switching from history to English, Munsey tore through the Forster canon, avoiding A Passage to India, “because of my father”, which eventually led him to The Longest Journey, probably Forster’s least popular novel. It’s a difficult, allusive coming-of-age tale about a lame-footed boy named Frederick Elliot, known as “Ricky” or “Rickety”.

“I wanted to learn about other people’s inner lives,” Munsey says. “It sounds a little corny but I just couldn’t put it down. Here was this person struggling with ideas of how they should be, but feeling, quite literally, crippled. I saw Forster every day on the way to breakfast, so one morning I plucked up the courage to speak to him. I told him The Longest Journey was the best book I’d ever read and asked if I could buy him a drink.”

“I’m so pleased you’ve said this,” Forster replied. “It’s my favourite of my books. It’s so much based on myself.” The pair went for a glass of white wine. “You know, you’re the first person to ask me to go for a drink in 30 years,” Forster said.

The Longest Journey begins in Cambridge, in rooms which, by further coincidence, Munsey would occupy during his third year of study. Its protagonist fails to realise his artistic ambitions. He moves to rural Wiltshire and becomes a harsh schoolmaster, while his wife mourns for a previous love. Ricky fails to have the “truthful relationships” he so desperately wants – until, that is, he saves his alcoholic half-brother’s life shortly before his own death.

Last year, Munsey spent three weeks in hospital with a suspected heart condition. When he was given the all-clear, he became determined to see the only Forster novel that had never been adapted appear on the big screen.

“James Ivory told me it was too depressing to be made into a film, but I disagree . . . It doesn’t matter if you’re 20, 50 or 70 – the question of redemption is always contemporary.

“The book has been a warning to me against diffidence, dishonesty, being ‘rickety’ in my relationships with others,” Munsey says. “I think I’m the only producer who can make the film.”

He is now in pre-production for an adaptation of Forster’s unloved, unfilmable book. “He was so keen to show how personal it was,” Munsey recalls, “he just blurted it out. It felt to me like a moment of . . . well, connection, I suppose.” 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.