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Adapting a novel into a screenplay is a challenging task. Working closely with Michael Morpurgo, Simon Reade wrote the screenplay for Private Peaceful.


  1. Watch this interview with Simon Reade. As you watch, try to listen out for Simon mentioning the following points about the adaptation process:
    • Increasing dramatic tension
    • Entering the world of the characters
    • Keeping true to the spirit of the novel
    • Re-ordering the narrative
    • Extending the stories of some of the characters
    • Creating some backstories
    • Making Tommo more active and less passive
  2. After watching this interview, place the points above into an order of priority putting the one you believe to be the most important at the top and the least important at the bottom. Give reasons for the order you've created.
  3. In the interview, Simon Reade mentions several moments from the screenplay that he feels are particularly significant, one of which is the scene where Tommo's and Charlie's father is killed by the falling tree. Read the shooting script for this episode and the relevant paragraphs from Chapter 1 of the novel. Simon explains how he tried to keep the scene very faithful to the novel. Look closely at both texts: in what ways are they similar and different?
  4. Now choose an episode from the novel that you think is an important moment in the whole story. When filmmakers plan how to shoot different scenes, they set out their ideas visually using a storyboard, which shows what every frame will look like through the camera lens. Using a storyboard template, show the camera shots you would use to portray events or re-write the episode as a scene from a screenplay. Copy the same layout as in the extract from the screenplay above. If you choose to write the scene as a screenplay, remember that film is essentially a visual way of communicating so try not to use too much dialogue.

2012 © Eagle Media Group. All Rights Reserved.

Simon Reade interview transcript


1. How did you make decisions on what changes to make from the original story?

Yeah, what's interesting is that I hope people will think that this is very close to the original novel and certainly the spirit of the novel is what informs it all the way through. There was no sense that I came along with my own ego wanting to trash the original work of Michael Morpurgo and impose my own story on it, that's absolutely not the case at all. However, if you look at it scene by scene, you may discover that there are very few scenes in the film that occur in the book, certainly not word for word in the book, despite, obviously there are a few set pieces, because what we'd done is that we'd gone into the worlds of these people that Michael shows people working on a farm and describes people working on a farm but it wouldn't necessarily be dramatic, it would be a fantastic piece of novel writing, and so we've had to choose a moment where there's a confrontation say between, and tension between young Charlie and young Tommo on the farm and that is not something that would occur in the book but you would think it's in the book and you probably remember it being in the book if my screenplay is working properly, which I always hope it is. I mean a lot of things that we've, I suppose we've added or changed is we've extended the stories of the father; we changed the introduction of Molly - in the novel she's already there, in the screenplay she arrives as a result of Tommo and Charlie's father dying, because her father is the man to replace him. So, at every, I suppose, at every step of the way, we didn't just want to re-create the novel but we wanted to increase dramatic tension, we wanted to introduce hurdles to leap over for the story and I suppose that's always the driving thing behind the story, behind the dramatisation. Also, working with a director, they bring their own vision and I was very lucky, as opposed to the director coming in at the end of this process, which is often the case with the screenplay writing, I worked hand-in-glove with the director all the way through all the drafts. And so there's one sequence in particular which does not occur in the book which is the dance at the village hall, which is before the young boys go off to war, and that came partly from Pat O'Connor's remembrance of his childhood - he grew up in rural Ireland - and also partly from his own kind of dramateur gene in that he's done those scenes before and he knows that they work in films, in Dancing at Lughnasa in particular and I was able to therefore bring together the whole community, the people that were leaving, the people that were staying behind - I have Charlie staying behind, he only joins later, whereas he joins up with his brother in the novel - and able to write what I hope, you know, are little touchstones and expressions of feeling without having to say too much because it's all expressed in this bittersweet dance which is the end of one era and obviously the beginning of the next era. Overall, I think the intention of the screenplay was to make Tommo active rather than passive. I think in the novel, for very, very good literary reasons, he's a sort of, he's a sponge and he absorbs the world around him, and that's why the novel works so well and I think talking with Michael, he was very conscious that once we had that protagonist on-screen, he couldn't just be an observer, he couldn't because you'd lose interest in him as somebody watching the film. So, we, all the way through, I was thinking, "Well, how do I make Tommo make decisions? How do I give him the tools to be the master of his own destiny as opposed to just, you know, allowing things to happen to him?" And that tension was very good actually, being able to have the novel in one hand and the imperatives of storytelling on-screen in the other, and to flesh out and write up the characters in that way.


2. What are some of the significant moments in the screenplay?

Significant moments in the screenplay for me are multifarious, I think. I mean, there are moments where I have absolutely translated almost word for word what Michael has written in the novel and when I actually saw that being screened was very moved and one in particular is the death of the father who is felled by the tree as he's trying to save his son; what leads up to that I've slightly expanded upon, and what provokes that, I've written myself; but that was a great moment for me, and particularly when we shot it because we could only do it in one take because you don't want to chop down too many trees and so we had three cameras on it, all going at the same time, and it's a very risky business and we all had to clear out of the way while it was done; but it was a very, very important moment, that one, for me, because it was absolutely faithful and true and, as I say, a kind of literal translation of what happened in the book. There are then moments in it which do not occur in the book at all that I'm very proud of because I think it both takes Michael's story to a place where he might have pushed it had he written a screenplay and had he not been a novelist in the first place, but also, that it does, I mean I said earlier I didn't have an ego, but it does come from me as much as it comes from the story and I suppose those are moments of political anger, I think, and one of the moments that still makes the hairs on the back of my neck tingle is when Charlie confronts the Colonel in the pub when he's sent home from the war, which is sort of in the, it is there in the novel, but precisely what he says is much more politicised than how Michael chose to write it originally. Some of the humour comes from me or comes from the actors that we were working with. There are other moments where we were five, six weeks into an eight-week shoot and the director would turn up at 7 o'clock in the morning and say, "The scene we're about to shoot in half an hour, I think it needs a re-write", and because I happened to be on the shoot and on location because I was also the producer, I would then very calmly, and try not to look like a frightened rabbit, go away in that next half-hour and rapidly re-write a scene and some of the best scenes actually came out of that, one of the scenes is the final farewell of Charlie and Tommo in the cell, which is a mixture of how Michael presented it but also responding to the particular location we had, the particular actors and where we were on the journey of actually shooting the film as well. So, it's very difficult to pinpoint one moment where I think, "Oh, that's the one I'm most proud of," because there's a whole mixture of things that is a mixture of invention, a mixture of faithfulness to Michael's vision, a kind of inevitability that has been thrown up by the new dramatic situations that we have created in the film. There are a couple of things that would only really ever happen in a film, or in a very bad novel, which are moments of back story, which is a kind of real Hollywood cliché and I kind of, when I was asked to write these things, these moments, I cringed a bit because I thought, "Oh, dear, that isn't necessary to the story, if it was, Michael would have included it." I'm quite glad in the end that I have done, and there are two in particular: one came about because of the casting of Sergeant Hanley, which was Pat O'Connor's old collaborator, John Lynch, who in the novel, it's kind of indeterminate where he's from but John is from the north of Ireland and he chose that part of the world for Sergeant Hanley and that made us realise that there was more of a connection between Hanley and Charlie on-screen than there had been necessarily in the novel, and actually they were two peas out of the same pod and that was partly why Hanley took against Charlie because he saw so much of himself in Charlie and Charlie exposed that or was like a mirror to Hanley and, you know, everything that Hanley hadn't been and so there was a lot of disappointment I suppose from Hanley that was projected onto Charlie which is why he takes against him and that's the kind of back story that Michael had not gone into and why would he need to in a novel and that didn't come from me as the screenwriter until I realised that we had John playing Hanley and I think the day after he arrived on set I sort of rapidly set about, you know, re-writing these little moments. There's another very moving moment which actually was suggested by my fellow producer, Guy de Beaujeu, which is from the mother - who I actually gave a name to, Michael doesn't give a name to the mother, I gave her the name Hazel, Hazel Peaceful - where she talks at the grave of James just before the marriage of her son Charlie to Molly, and she speaks out loud, very simply, at the gravestone, and the idea came from Guy and then I kind of wrote it up and I think I'd written a great big speech and in the end thought, no, this can be expressed in a very simple sentence about her, Hazel, identifying with Molly and Charlie as a kind of reflection of the marriage that she'd had with James Peaceful, which her family had kind of said were from the wrong, he was from the wrong side of the tracks, as it were, and she'd married beneath herself. So, that's a long-winded way, really, of saying I've taken things and pushed them to their, either to their natural conclusions or to their extremes, but whatever, I've hopefully made them as exciting as the novel is to read, I've made them as exciting as a collective experience in the cinema.