The Art Of Adaptation: Bringing The Light Between Oceans To The Big Screen

A film about love, truth and the secrets people keep in relationships, and what happens when those secrets are exposed to the light of day.

The best-selling novel that swept readers away with its transporting story of fate, love, moral dilemmas and the lengths one couple will go to see their hard-fought dreams realized, comes to the screen as a lush, classically star-crossed romance starring written for the screen and directed by Derek Cianfrance.

Derek Cianfrance and Michael Fassbender on the set of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, written and directed by Derek Cianfrance and based on the acclaimed novel by M. L. Steadman.

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance and Michael Fassbender on the set of The Light Between The Oceans, based on the acclaimed novel by M. L. Steadman.

M.L. Stedman’s novel The Light Between Oceans was published in the U.S. by Scribner in July, 2012 and was immediately embraced by readers and critics alike, appearing on both The New York Times and USA Today’s bestseller lists and as Amazon’s Best Book of the Month for August of that year. Since then it has been translated into over 35 languages.

As mesmerizingly beautiful as it is heartbreaking, M.L. Stedman’s novel “The Light Between Oceans” was a literary sensation upon its publication in 2012. Set on the remote edge of Western Australia in the years following the devastation of the Great War, the book lured readers into a seductively old-fashioned tale of love and impossible choices beneath which lay roiling, contemporary questions of right and wrong, the effects of war and peace, the wonders of connection and the dangers of blind scruples.

This is where Tom Sherbourne, a shell-shocked veteran, devotes himself to his new job as lighthouse keeper on the otherwise uninhabited Janus Rock, surrounded by nothing but the vast sea, seeking solace in the solitude. He intends to remain alone, but unexpectedly meets Isabel Graysmark, a vivacious young woman from the town of Partageuse across the harbor, herself grieving two brothers lost in the war.

Despite the obstacles, their love flourishes in the stark isolation and they are soon married. Passionate for each other and hoping to be part of creating a new life together, they try to start a family, but fate intercedes. Then, one night, a mysterious rowboat holding a dead man and an infant girl washes ashore, setting off a chain of decisions—some impetuous, others wrenching— that unravel with shattering consequences.

Cianfrance immediately felt the cinematic potential of a story that invokes the power of landscape, the aftermath of war, the all-consuming state of passion and, most of all, the ageless tradition of romances that push a couple into illuminating moral borderlands. He adapted Stedman’s book faithfully, yet with a filmmaker’s eye for the details that propel human relationships into both bliss and catastrophe.

“’The Light Between Oceans’ is a film about love, truth and the secrets people keep in relationships, and what happens when those secrets are exposed to the light of day,” says Cianfrance. “It is a moral drama, but at the core, it is a timeless love story.”

“The Light Between Oceans” marks the first time director Derek Cianfrance has adapted a novel, but he has long been interested in creating a cinema of intimacy and probing into themes of love, family legacy, loneliness and choices—the very same themes that made Stedman’s novel so resonant to so many. He won acclaim in 2010 for writing and directing “Blue Valentine,” a visually inventive portrait of a marriage breaking apart, then garnered accolades for writing and directing “The Place Beyond the Pines,” a lyrically told crime drama that turns a bank heist into an intense father-son love story.

“I’ve essentially made exploring relationships and families my life’s work to this point,” he says. “I feel as if my mission as a filmmaker is to explore the most intimate relationships in both private and expansive ways.”

Derek Cianfrance

Derek Cianfrance (Director/Screenwriter) attended the University of Colorado’s film school, where he studied under avant-garde film legends Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon. His first three student films each took the university’s top filmmaking prize, earning him the Special Dean’s Grant for Achievement in the Arts as well as the Independent Film Channel Award for Excellence in Student Filmmaking. At age 23, he co-wrote, shot, directed and edited his first feature film, “Brother Tied,” which premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival to much acclaim. The film went on to screen at over 30 film festivals worldwide, winning several honors, including the Special Jury Prize for Bold Original Expression at the Florida Film Festival. Cianfrance then ventured into documentary filmmaking, where he worked on a number of different films covering a variety of different subject matters, including: “Run-D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay: The Last Interview”; “Battlegrounds: King of the World”; “B.I.K.E.”; and “Quattro Noza,” for which he was awarded the Best Cinematography Award at Sundance in 2003. His second narrative feature film, “Blue Valentine,” which he directed and co-wrote, starred Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The film had its world premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and also screened at a number of other festivals around the world, including TIFF and the Cannes Film Festival. Gosling received Golden Globe® and Critics’ Choice Award nominations for his performance in the film and Williams received Oscar®, Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice Award nominations as Best Actress. Cianfrance received the Most Promising Filmmaker Award from the Chicago Film Critics Association. Cianfrance then co-wrote and directed “The Place Beyond the Pines,” starring Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper. The film premiered at TIFF 2012 and was named one of the Top Ten Independent Films that year by the National Board of Review. Cianfrance is currently adapting S.C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon” for Warner Bros.

With “The Light Between Oceans,” Cianfrance saw a chance to explore that duality in an entirely fresh way. The allure of Stedman’s book was in part its fable-like elements: a secluded island escape, a love affair removed from the constraints of society, a crying baby found at sea, and a grieving woman whose husband and only child disappear without a trace. But what really drew him in was the chance to explore how even the most isolated and intense love must find a way to weather the toughness of truth and the consequences of life’s harshest choices.

It’s no coincidence that the story of “The Light Between Oceans” takes place on Janus Rock, aptly named after the two-faced Roman God of endings and beginnings. Like Janus, the characters of Tom and Isabel are caught between two poles: between a past haunted by war’s destruction and a future they hope to imagine together; between hiding away from the darkness of the world and chasing the flickering promise of light; between doing what seems fair in the moment and seeing what is truly just. The trick was wrapping all of this into a film that is also a spellbinding romance and, ultimately, a reckoning.

For Cianfrance, the best way in was through the personal emotions he experienced while reading the book himself. “I wanted to be incredibly faithful to the book,” he explains. “The most meaningful compliment on the film I’ve received so far was from Stedman herself, who said she spent the day weeping after attending a screening…weeping because she felt that she was understood. She said, ‘Isn’t that the point of life, that we, as human beings, are trying to be understood by each other?’”

Like millions of fans around the world, Cianfrance was transfixed by Stedman’s writing, h, her ability to create equal parts suspense and poetry out of dark secrets and doom-laden decisions. He remembers openly crying on the subway while reading the book, despite the stares. “In the years since, I’ve seen other people crying while reading the book in cafes, parks and subways and it validates for me that this is such a deeply human and universal story,” he says. “I think people are drawn to it because it is so honest about the pain of love and about love lost, but also because it then becomes a beautiful rendering of redemption and healing.”

Already able to visualize the story unspooling on the screen, Cianfrance made the decision to go after the story with total commitment. At that point, the novel had been acquired by DreamWorks and was in early stages of development by producer David Heyman (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Gravity,” the “Harry Potter” films) of Heyday Films. Heyman, too, had fallen for the book at the suggestion of executive producer Rosie Alison (“Testament of Youth,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”).

“I’m very drawn to stories where you can see all sides, and this is a story that economically shows all sides,” Heyman says. “You see not just Tom’s, Isabel’s and Hannah’s sides in what happens, but every character you meet seems to bring in another layer. In that way, the story takes you on a personal, emotional journey that I think people will want to discuss long after they’ve left the theatre.”

Adds Alison, “The book has a hard, diamond-like quality in its take on love, loss and self-sacrifice. In a sense it’s a psychological thriller in which the mystery is where the strongest love lies.”

Cianfrance approached Heyman ready to fight for the project, telling him he was destined to make the film, and his enthusiasm was irresistible. Having seen “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Heyman already knew Cianfrance’s nuanced writing and strong visual style were a match for the vivid immersiveness of the book.

“There’s no artifice to Derek’s work,” Heyman says. “That was so key to this adaptation because it’s such a charged story. We were fortunate that Derek connected with these characters in a profound way. The spirit of the book is written on every page of his script and felt in every frame of the film.”

THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANS 1Cianfrance wrote the screenplay without input from Stedman, but the author was omnipresent in his head. “Even though we never talked, I had such a deep relationship with her in my mind. I treated her words as scripture. I read the book so many times, I had it memorized,” he explains. “I always tried to remain true to the feelings I had reading it for the first time. That was my North Star.”

He also made sure to keep the book’s rigorous lack of judgment towards its complex characters intact. “Something that really attracted me is the fact that there are no bad people in the story,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean everyone makes the right choices or that they don’t hurt other people, but in their hearts and in their minds and in their souls they are good people. And as a filmmaker interested in humanity, it was a great privilege to try to tell a story where the supposed ‘villains’ of the story might be the people you love most.”

While Cianfrance was steadfast in his respect for the material, he was equally as dedicated in wanting to find that mysterious alchemy that allows works of literature to live and breathe in movie theatres. In fact, he himself faced many wrenching decisions during the adaptation: decisions about where to compact Stedman’s carefully-structured tale and where to translate scenes into something more explicitly visual so it could feel alive in flesh and blood.

“In any adaptation, I think the greatest challenge is that of subtraction, what you must leave out,” he says. “It’s like sculpture; once you embrace that, it can be the wind beneath your wings. Eventually you can expand the moments and themes that you love and push the boundaries to find even more truthfulness. This is when it really starts to become alive. There are, of course, key differences between cinema and literature and one of those is the way time plays out. There has to be a different way of handling pace and also of handling secrets and revelations.”

The latter especially intrigued the director, who always saw a central theme of the story as the way secrets within a marriage can be both wrecking and uniting. “The way cinema reveals secrets was as important to making the adaptation work,” Cianfrance says. “For example, in the book, Tom and Isabel both learn the truth about the baby at the same time, but in the movie, Tom sees it first, so you see and feel Tom carrying this weight alone.”

Only after he’d completed several drafts did Cianfrance meet Stedman for the first time. “I was so nervous,” he remembers, “Because I respect her so greatly and truly hoped I could do her work justice. We had dinner together and she was just one of the most charming, thoughtful, loving human beings I’ve ever met. She’s a very private person, but she became a great support to me as I made the film. I felt very sensitive to the fact I was taking her creation somewhere new, and her trust went a long way in giving me the confidence I needed to make the film.”

Says Stedman, “I’m so fortunate that, through Heyday Films and DreamWorks, this project found its way into the hands of the wonderful Derek Cianfrance. He has expertly and lovingly brought the world of the book to life in a new medium, complete with brilliant cast, cinematography and music. The result is an exquisitely beautiful and emotionally authentic film that stays true to the spirit of my novel, yet also embodies the deeply personal interpretation of the director and his actors. It’s been a great privilege to watch it come into being.”

The producers were thrilled with the structure of the screenplay. “We knew we had something special,” says producer Jeffrey Clifford (“Chloe,” “Up in the Air”). “Derek’s script distilled the essential emotions of the novel in authentic and naturalistic ways and really brought to life the strength of the characters.”

The cast was equally as affected by Cianfrance’s draft. “The script moved me to tears, as the book did,” says Michael Fassbender, who takes on the conflicted character of Tom Sherbourne. “Tom and Isabel’s love story is so beautifully told. When we see something on screen that we relate to as human beings—and I think people will see themselves in Tom and Isabel—that is when cinema is most powerful.”


As “The Light Between Oceans” begins, Tom Sherbourne, a combat veteran haunted by time spent on the western front battlefields in a brutal war that took the lives of 60,000 of his countryman, arrives in Western Australia. Trying to escape the looping cycles of grief, guilt and trauma, he finds a perfect way to be secluded, yet useful, as the lighthouse keeper who meticulously keeps the beacon between the Indian and Southern oceans burning. Yet, rather than isolation, Tom finds himself instead being opened up in previously unimaginable ways by the love of a woman who truly wants to know his heart—a love that nearly unravels him.

Portraying this extraordinary unfolding of a solitary, principled man is two-time Academy Award® nominee Michael Fassbender in what is his most intimate and humane role to-date. Though he has riveted audiences as the sexually-compulsive Brandon in “Shame,” as the mutant Magneto in the “X-Men” series, as a cruel slave owner in “12 Years a Slave” and as the ingenious leader of Apple in “Steve Jobs,” this role was unlike any other he has tackled before.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANSThat difference excited Derek Cianfrance. He explains, “I’ve been absolutely hypnotized and blown away by Michael’s presence on the screen for years. What always stood out to me was how smart he is, how his brain works on screen—it is larger-than-life. But with this character, I wanted to see the heart of Michael Fassbender—the heart that goes along with his physicality and intelligence. I wanted him to put his soul and vulnerability on the screen. I wanted to see the battle between Michael’s heart and Michael’s mind.”

Cianfrance continues, “When we met, I asked Michael if he had ever been in love, and when he laughed at me and said ‘yes,’ I felt an instant kind of brotherhood with him. TAnd there was really no one else at that point. I felt it was destiny for him to be Tom. Tom is like a boiling pot of water with a lid on it. On the surface, he is very contained, but underneath there is a storm brewing.”

And Fassbender was drawn to that storm as well; drawn to a man who has an almost urgent need to be decent in the wake of war’s amorality, even more so when he falls in love. “Reading the book and script, I was impressed by Tom’s principles, loyalty and strength of character,” Fassbender says. “He’s a stoic, honest man, but he’s also a man trying to mend himself. He’s carrying all these mental scars from combat, yet when he meets Isabel, her freshness and innocence motivate him to take a chance on opening his heart.”

“The Light Between Oceans” is driven by the passionate performances of its cast, but the foundation of those performances is the film’s authentic recreation of an evocative place and time. Director Derek Cianfrance wanted to immerse viewers in the primal atmosphere of Janus Rock with its harsh beauty and tempestuous weather, as well as the parochial small towns of Western Australia still reeling, both psychologically and socially, from World War I.

As for what Cianfrance hopes audiences will take away from this journey, he summarizes, “I hope people come away having experienced an undeniable love story, a classic fable in which love and truth battle each other. And hopefully they’ll leave the theatre debating with each other about who they most identify with and about who made the right choices and why.”