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.”