Russell Banks on getting his words on screen
"Now I know how Jane Austen felt," jokes Russell Banks as he ventures
onto the publicity tour for the second film adaptation of one of his novels.
Last year saw the release of The Sweet Hereafter, directed by
Atom Egoyan, which received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and
Best Adapted Screenplay. This year Affliction, directed by Paul
Schrader, has garnered Oscar buzz for its star, Nick Nolte. Meanwhile, Banks
has been busy writing screenplays for his novels Continental Drift and
Rule of the Bone, both of which are in production. A third novel, The
Book of Jamaica, is also on the way to the big screen.
Popularity with filmmakers aside, Banks's novels don't seem to have much in
common with the elegant and witty 19th-century novelist of manners. Set in the
frozen north, The Sweet Hereafter related the futile efforts of a small
community to respond to the death of their children in a bus accident.
Affliction, which is likewise set in a snowbound small town, is about
Wade Whitehouse (Nolte), a middle-aged loser who tries to come to grips with a
legacy of paternal violence, abuse, and alcoholism. The recent film, Banks
acknowledges, is perhaps closer to home.
"It's based very loosely on family history," he says. "It's inspired by my
father's relationship with my grandfather, but it could also have been my
great-grandfather and his father. There's an ancestral string to these sorts of
families. Some of the details and events are taken out of my own family
history. The struggle Nolte goes through not to be like his father, not to
repeat this cycle, that was a central conflict in my father's life too. Just
the fact that he tried and failed, as did Wade, maybe made it possible for me
not to have to go through that struggle. That's why the book is dedicated to my
The subject seems perfect for director Paul Schrader, whose films -- including
Taxi Driver and Raging Bull (which he wrote for Martin Scorsese)
and Hardcore and Patty Hearst (which he wrote and directed) --
are obsessed with the themes of familial politics and male violence. In fact,
author Paul Auster remarked that the collaboration between Schrader and Banks
"proves the existence of God."
"That was kind of him to say that," says Banks. "I grew up in the '60s and
'70s, and I learned about movies through that generation of filmmakers.
Schrader is the one I felt the most kinship with. Taxi Driver, Raging
Bull, Last Temptation, and so on. When he called and was interested
in the option for the book, I was really flattered. I knew that there was no
other director in America who could really get it. I don't know if it was
predestined, but it was fortuitous."
Is a career as a filmmaker also predestined for Banks? "There's the financial
reward, which is real enough," he admits. "Certainly that's the case with
Rule of the Bone, which I did for a studio, Fox 2000, and for which I
was handsomely paid. But then there's the loss of language. The novel doesn't
exist outside the language in which it's told, and with movies you're using a
different language. So I ended up writing an 800-page book
[Cloudsplitter, a historical novel about John Brown] that can't be
Not even as a mini-series?
"You could do it in six hours," he relents. "Actually, Martin Scorsese wants
to produce it as a mini-series."
Back to Affliction