Adapting a 600 page memoir into a screenplay

Adapting Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

The film Testament of Youth is an unforgettable and profound story of love, war and remembrance, based on the First World War memoir by Vera Brittain, which has become the classic testimony of that war from a woman’s point of view. A searing journey from youthful hopes and dreams to the edge of despair and back again, it’s a film about young love, the futility of war and how to make sense of the darkest times. Directed by James Kent, the screenplay was crafted by Juliette Towhidi.  It releases on November 27 in South Africa.

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Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington in Testament of Youth. The story begins in the Edwardian spring of 1914, with Vera Brittain – a youthful feminist, free-minded and irrepressible – determined to sit exams for Oxford, against her conservative parents’ wishes. She is encouraged and inspired by her brother and his friends, particularly the brilliant Roland Leighton, who shares her dream of being a writer. But her hopes for Oxford with Roland turn to dust as war is declared, and all the young men enlist; she herself gives up her dream of writing, and becomes a nurse. What follows is a story of heightened, urgent love between Vera and Roland – interrupted by the war, as Vera moves closer and closer to the front, eventually nursing Germans soldiers, who help her to recognize the futility of war. Through Vera we see youthful love buffeted by fatal losses and the overpowering tide of history, as one by one those closest to her are lost to the war. Yet Vera’s story is also one of survival, as she returns from the war determined to find a new purpose, and to keep faith with those she has lost, spurring her towards a powerful act of remembrance.

The creative journey begins

In 2008, Christine Langan and Joe Oppenheimer of BBC Films were exploring the BBC archive for dramas with film potential, and, with the centenary of World War 1 looming, their attention turned to the classic 1979 BBC series of Testament of Youth. Rosie Alison, of Heyday Films, had recently worked with Christine Langan on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and when she learned of the BBC’s exploratory conversations with the Vera Brittain estate, she made a strong plea for Heyday to produce the film.

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain

Alison, like Langan, had fallen under the spell of both Vera Brittain’s memoir and the original television series as a schoolgirl – and had retained a passionate attachment to Testament of Youth. BBC Films agreed that Rosie Alison and David Heyman (of Heyday Films) should be the producers for the film.

Adapting Testament of Youth

Alison and BBC Films undertook an extensive search for writers, before Juliette Towhidi was chosen. Although previously best known for a very different film, Calendar Girls, Towhidi made a passionate pitch to write the script.  Read an interview with Juliette Towhidi

Says Alison: “Juliette just stood out – she had the emotional intensity and rigorous intelligence to tackle the big story because it’s not only the book of ‘Testament of Youth’, there were also Vera’s diaries, and a wonderful collection of correspondence between Vera and the men in her life. There’s an overwhelming wealth of material to draw from, including Roland Leighton’s frontline poetry, and we needed to find a writer who could tackle all that and not get lost within it.”

Juliette Towhidi

Juliette Towhidi

Juliette Towhidi says: “My task was to translate Vera’s memoir into a screenplay, which for me meant sticking to the book – that was my beginning and end point for research. I read and re-read and re-read the book and because I come from a journalistic background it is in my DNA to research things thoroughly. I did a lot of research around the First World War, always from a civilian perspective and of course discussing her with Shirley Williams (Vera’s daughter) and Mark Bostridge, (Vera’s biographer) really brought her to life for me.”

While it was decided not to use a literal first person narrator, Vera’s first person voice is implied through the use of her letters (such an important aspect of Vera’s memoir). Says Alison: “Over two or three years, Juliette’s script evolved to achieve that balance between the big historical story and Vera’s personal journey. We didn’t want a stately biopic; we wanted to make an intimate film where you really felt the interiority of Vera on her extraordinary journey from youth and hope through the war and its losses, and out the other side to a kind of a reawakening of the value and purpose of her life. Juliette brought to the script both Vera’s inner life, and the bigger picture of the times.”

Says Towhidi: “It’s a little bit like one of the great Russian novels in the sense that you have individuals experiencing a great tide of history that they are powerless to do anything about. Vera’s very personal journey set against this extraordinary epic backdrop of the war is what I think makes the story really special. The fact that she struggled with different forms of expressing her experience – she began by trying to write it as a totally fictionalized novel, and then ended up writing a very personal first-hand account. I think that’s actually what gives the book its power. You feel the truth of it.”

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Taron Egerton, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington and Colin Morgan in Testament of Youth

Choices made in adapting a true story

In condensing a 600 page memoir into a two hour film, it was clear that some omissions and changes would have to be made, to distil the source material.

During the process of adaptation, the writer and the producers were very mindful of identifying the key aspects of Vera’s story, the bare bones, and building the script around those.

For example, the film concentrates on two key periods of Vera’s nursing – at the First London General hospital in Camberwell, then at the military camp Etaples in France. This meant that Vera’s period as a nurse in Malta, had to be left out: it felt too much of a digression within the narrative drive of the film. Another example of a conscious change made concerns Vera’s nursing of Edward: although Vera did nurse her wounded brother, in reality this was in the First London General Hospital at Camberwell after he was wounded in the Somme – but the film makers shifted this encounter to a later period of the film, during Vera’s stint as a nurse in France at Etaples; this was to help the pacing of her relationship with Edward through the film. (When Vera Brittain was thinking of fictionalising her war experiences, before she settled on writing a memoir instead, she herself toyed with moving her nursing of Edward to France.)

There was also the question of where to begin and end Vera’s story.

The film makers decided to open with Vera on Armistice Day in 1918, drawing from her powerful descriptions of herself as a broken figure on that day, disconnected from the cheering crowds around her; this was to establish a keen, visceral sense of seeing the world with Vera and through her eyes. Through Vera’s memory, the film then flashes back to 1914, as we meet her in her pre-war innocence.

Much thought also went into where to end the film – how far to show Vera on her journey both as a writer and as a political activist, working for the League of Nations in the 1920s.

And whether to show the start of her attachment to her future husband, George Catlin. In the end, it felt more dramatically satisfying to keep the timescale of the film more contained than the full scope of Testament of Youth.

Although we meet, briefly, her future husband George Catlin, the film focuses more on Vera’s determination to honour the memories of Edward, Roland, Victor and Geoffrey.

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Kit Harington,Colin Morgan and Taron Egerton in Testament of Youth,

We leave Vera at the moment when she first finds her voice as a speaker. And there is the sense that, formed by her wartime experiences, Vera can now go on to write the book of remembrance which defined her legacy, Testament of Youth (which she actually didn’t publish until 1933.)

Sources

There is a wealth of original source material from which the current adaptation has been able to draw. Aside from the primary source of Vera Brittain’s WW1 memoir Testament of Youth, which she wrote and published retrospectively in 1933, there are also her diaries from those years (published as Chronicle of Youth), and her correspondence with Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow (published as Letters From A Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends, edited by Mark Bostridge). There is also a definitive biography of Vera Brittain by Mark Bostridge and Paul Berry, as well as Bostridge’s edited collection of Vera’s poetry and prose (Because You Died). Roland Leighton’s poetry is featured by Vera Brittain within Testament of Youth.

Vera Brittain’s biographer, Mark Bostridge, was the consultant on the film. Vera’s daughter Shirley Williams was extremely supportive and generous with her time, meeting with the production team and discussing script drafts, and giving insights into her mother.

Testament of Youth is released on November 27 in South Africa