Interview: Juliette Towhidi talks about adapting Testament of Youth

Juliette Towhidi

Juliette Towhidi

Adapting Testament of Youth

What was it about the book that you loved?

I had read the book as a teenager and loved it, and what struck me then, is what struck me re-reading it and that is how modern Vera feels. It is that sense of connection with someone from a forgotten time that can really strike you when you read a book. That’s also something we wanted to capture in the film, how her concerns, fears, hopes and aspirations feel so timeless. Yet Vera went through something extraordinary, something so unimaginable to most of us.

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Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander in Testament of Youth

Can you give us an insight into Vera?

The film begins with Vera, a rebellious young woman of 19 and 20, who is deeply frustrated with her parental surroundings and their expectation that she’s just going to get married. She desperately wants a higher education and to go to university. There were far few universities in those days, so Oxford was her goal. She has a very close relationship with her brother Edward, and then meets his close friend from school, Roland Leighton. They unexpectedly fall in love. Vera wasn’t looking for marriage and romance, but they do fall in love. Suddenly and shockingly, the war breaks out and gradually her brother and fiance, as well as her two closest male friends, who are also part of their intimate circle, all go off to fight. The story told from her perspective of what it’s like to go through that sense of jeopardy over your closest friends in your generation, and the loss and the fear and the terror. Her experience represents the English experience of that war. She ends up getting into Oxford, but leaving quite quickly to go and serve at the front as a voluntary nurse. I won’t spoil the story entirely, but she has some pretty searing experiences. It’s about how she reconstructs herself from those as well.

How dramatically different was Vera’s life to the life of women today?

It was both a shock and surprise that the lives of women were so circumscribed only a hundred years ago. She couldn’t go anywhere on her own and had to be chaperoned. She had no privacy and her letters were supposed to be read by her mother. Even sitting in a room on her own was considered a bit odd. Women were expected to learn the piano and maybe paint a bit. For a middle class girl like Vera it was all about her decorous attributes, being suitable for marriage and finding the right husband. Vera herself said that the time in her life that she was most unhappy was at home in Buxton. That tells you something about how suffocating it was for women a hundred years ago.

What makes her unique as a female character of this period?

I think she was an instinctive feminist, in the sense that she rebelled against her lot in life, which was meant to include getting married, not bothering about education or broadening her horizons in any way, and she just wasn’t going to have that. I think that’s something we can all relate to today. She was clever and questioning, but at the same time she was representative of her generation in that they were trusting and innocent. I think that led them to a collective sacrifice that she then emerged from, very changed by, and very questioning of. There’s a big, epic feel to her life journey. She goes through changes that for some people would happen over a lifetime, but for Vera these are concentrated into four dramatic and terrifying years. She is an incredibly courageous, strong, rebellious, and very brave young woman.

How do you begin to condense this woman’s life and experiences into a feature film?

My task was to translate Vera’s novel 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 Shirley Williams (Vera’s daughter) and Mark Bostridge (Vera’s biographer) really brought her to life for me.

There’s a nice quote ‘What makes Testament of Youth so special is that it moves and it educates at the same time.’ What did that mean to you?

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. It is the human struggle against that backdrop that makes it so powerful. 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.

So when did you form a plan of how you were going to condense this long and very personal book into a story that fits the film but also doesn’t feel too enclosed?

When you are a screenwriter, you have your instincts from the outset to capture the essence of the story. If you’re adapting a book, your job is to distil the essence of that book and to find the central threads that carry you through. So much of it is about structure, you want to capture the characters, the tones, the themes, and then structure them in a way that feels dramatically coherent. One of the first things I look for are image systems. For me in Testament of Youth there were trains, mud, blood, and a sense of decorum, as well, that contrasts with those. It was a journey away from Buxton and her decorous upbringing and into the chaos and horror of war, but with this amazing personality as the thread through all of that, taking you on that journey with her.

What were the key moments of the book that you had to include in the screenplay? One of the scenes that hit me the hardest in the book that we retained in the film is when Vera was nursing German wounded prisoners and officers at the Front. Vera holds the hand of a dying German officer and sees him through until the end. That scene is so powerful because she enters the war nursing at the Front seeing the Germans as a sworn enemy. It is about that moment of connection with that human being and experiencing that universality of what it is to be facing death. The humanity of a wounded person, no matter their nationality was a very transformative, pivotal scene. It really leapt out at me in the book, and hopefully will do the same in the film. It catapults her change of heart about war, and ultimately led to her becoming a pacifist.

Do you feel an obligation and responsibility to Vera to represent her faithfully in this story?

I think when you are creating a film often you have to condense a life in order to show a fuller meaning. You don’t get to hide behind chronology, necessarily; you want to be true to the essence of something. In order to capture that essence, sometimes you have to play with the facts a bit. We wanted to show that her ultimate end point is a complete change of view of war and conflict. Otherwise, the story doesn’t have the same resonance and meaning.

One of the unique elements of this film is the wealth of source material that exists between the key players such as letters and poems. What did it mean to you to have these at your disposal?

Having the letters is amazingly powerful because so much is expressed more directly than through other sources. One of the moments that brought the reality of these characters to life for me most fully was when I visited Shirley Williams at her office in Westminster and she still has her Uncle Edward’s filing case on top of a cupboard. That was an amazing moment to look at this object and you think ‘that’s from 1914.’ That moment really brought it home. We all felt it was important to include Roland’s poetry in the film and to me, the poems they wrote were a way of sticking two fingers up at war and what they were going through. It was almost like they were saying ‘this is the essence of us – this is an expression of something different and something higher.’ Here were these men, bogged down in waist high mud and horror and rats, conflict and imminent death. The fact that they were able to write these beautiful, expressive poems, which were often full of the horror of their experience but were instilled into a beautiful art form, is very inspiring. It says something about the human spirit. They also told me a little bit about who these young people were – brilliant, gorgeous, clever, the bright stars of their generation. I do think that increases the sense of tragedy, again.

What is it like to see Alicia embodying all those attributes and what do you think she brings to the role?

Alicia Vikander is amazing and looks uncannily like Vera. She’s an extremely, emotionally intelligent actress who just gets where Vera is in her life at every given moment. It was really exciting actually seeing her inhabit the role. Describe the three young men in Vera’s life?

Roland is the alpha male in the sense that he’s clever and charming and has had a gilded life up to that point. He’s effortlessly good at things, and very gifted. There’s a certain touch of arrogance and over confidence about him, because of that. He’s smart enough to realise that the challenge Vera presents to him is a great one, something that he really needs. I think that gives an interesting friction to their relationship. And he’s just fundamentally a very kind, loving person, and that’s how they connect.

Victor is the best friend you always want. He’s warm and kind and the person to whom everyone would go to talk about their problems. He’s a loyal, empathetic human being but perhaps lacking the leadership qualities of Roland.

Edward is Vera’s very gifted brother who is both an artist and musician. They were incredibly close and teased each other a lot. He more than anyone else was the reason Vera decided she too must head for the Front.

In reality Roland and Vera only knew each other for a few short weeks before war broke out. Was it your intention for Roland to become something of a romantic fantasy for Vera?

I think the fact that in reality and in the film, they spent very little time together did lend a sort of romantic aura and a sense of longing to their relationship. It’s really important to us that Roland feels like a real flesh and blood person, so you feel the events of the film much more vividly. It’s a difficult balancing act because it’s a strong romance but you want it to feel very real as well. I wouldn’t say we wanted to deliberately romanticize him, but obviously he was an incredibly appealing, charismatic person. Kit (Harington) was perfect for embodying that.

We’re at a time now where the First World War is no longer within living memory – who is the film aimed at?

I think it is a story with cross-generational appeal. There’ll be older people who will remember the family stories and remember people for whom it was a first-hand experience, but then there will be younger people who will be discovering the story for the first time. I think it’s really important for them to see stories like this in an era where we still have the same questions facing us about warfare and is it the right way to solve conflicts? What should our attitude towards authority be? This was a generation who trusted entirely what they were told by their so-called ‘elder’s and betters’. I think there’s a big warning in there for young people today to always question and make demands of our politicians and those who represent us to justify their decisions. This was a generation who didn’t do that. Vera’s experience was that their young men were all lambs to the slaughter. Certainly, it was a position she never adopted again, she questioned everything, even if it went against the grain of popular belief and that is an amazing message for young people. How does it feel to bring Vera’s story back into popular culture?

It’s really gratifying and really important to bring this amazing book back into fashion but more importantly it is a story that deserves to be told. Whatever the reasons for war I think Vera’s story teaches us that the human cost of war is what we have to look at. The fact that she ended up as such an unflinching pacifist tells us a lot about the conclusions she drew from it, and I think it’s a really important story to put out there at a time when we’re looking back at the First World War and remembering its centenary.

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