• Writer Phyllis Nagy at a screening of her film 'Carol' during the AFI FEST 2015 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, California.
When director Todd Haynes needed someone to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s ground-breaking lesbian romance for the big screen, he turned to the author's close friend and confidante, Emmy-nominated writer/director Phyllis Nagy. We spoke to her about the daunting task.
By
Stephen A. Russell

4 Jan 2016 - 10:50 AM  UPDATED 4 Jan 2016 - 10:50 AM

After publishing his celebrated debut novel, the military-themed Williwaw, author Gore Vidal fell from grace with the publication of one of the earliest gay male novels, The City and the Pillar, in 1948.

His blacklisting in polite society may very well have played on fellow queer author Patricia Highsmith’s mind when she penned her sophomore offering, a lesbian romance subverting age and class boundaries less than five years later. The Price of Salt was released in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan - though Highsmith needn’t have worried as it was wildly successful.

Re-published under Highsmith’s own name in the 1980s, it was re-titled Carol after the older object of desire of frustrated set designer and department store worker Therese. The classic romance has been adapted into a sublime new film by Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in career bests from the pair.

“It was the first relatively mainstream gay novel that actually posited a happy ending, one that didn’t end in suicide or going into the nunnery.”

Haynes turned to Highsmith’s close friend and confidante, Emmy-nominated writer/director Phyllis Nagy, to adapt the novel into a screenplay.

“It was the first relatively mainstream gay novel that actually posited a happy ending, one that didn’t end in suicide or going into the nunnery,” Nagy says.

“That was a huge part of its appeal. Also, it’s quite literary, though it had a pulpy publication and, indeed, I have a first edition paperback of it that makes it look like, oh god, a sex novel.”

Nagy says the task would have been far more intimidating had Highsmith not died two years before she was approached for the gig.

“I did have moments of, ‘should I really be doing this?’ but they dropped away. Because she wasn’t around, it was sort of a pressure on me that was entirely self-applied. I wanted to honour the memory of a friend, but that goes away very quickly when you start to get down to the nuts and bolts of translating from one medium to another.”

The first element Nagy cut was a large section in the latter half of the novel that sees an itinerant Therese drifting from one odd job to another after she and Carol separate.

“I knew instantly that that would not suit for a movie that would essentially be a meditation on falling in love and what happens when there are obstacles, so I was eliminating and compressing the parts of the book that don’t really involve Therese and Carol.”

Nagy also teased out the personal life of Blanchett’s Carol.

“What works brilliantly in the novel is that Carol is so shadowy we can all have our own Carol in our minds, but this would never have worked. So inventing a life for her apart from Therese’s memories was a huge thing.”

Enthralled by the central performances, including Kyle Chandler as Carol’s estranged husband Harge, Nagy hopes Highsmith would approve of her tinkering and that the story will find new life in cinemas. As for Highsmith’s own opinion of the book, did that change after re-publishing?

“It was at a time when Pat’s work was getting generally reconsidered in a lot of places as having great literary merit, as opposed to just that dismissive crime writer moniker that stuck with her. But I don’t think, honestly, she ever really rated it amongst her best work.

“That may have been self-protection, because it’s an intensely private novel, the only one that’s even vaguely auto-biographical, and it might have been a certain reticence, but she never talked about it to me with the kind of fondness that she’d talk about some of her other work.”

“...it’s still odd to see something you’ve worked on for so many years actually come to life and in such a remarkable way. I’m very grateful for the result. It could have been quite a different film in other hands.”

Whatever Highsmith’s innermost thoughts, Haynes has done an incredible job bringing these cherished queer characters to life in a subtly nuanced romance that thrums with authenticity. Nagy is delighted with his efforts.

“In this situation, there was never a move to do silly things with it, but it’s still odd to see something you’ve worked on for so many years actually come to life and in such a remarkable way. I’m very grateful for the result. It could have been quite a different film in other hands.”

Does she see Carol sparking a purple patch of queer cinema breaking through to mainstream audiences?

“I would like to think so, but only time and box office receipts will tell, to be frank. Every so often we seem to have a renaissance of queer films and there’s a big fuss made, and then two years later you just see the tent pole movies again.

“Hopefully something has shifted, but I think it’s too early to tell.”

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