The news broke a week or so ago that Iain M Banks’ socialist anarchist imperialist utopia The Culture was in the early stages of a journey to the screen, with White Lightnin's Dominic Murphy working on an adaptation of the short story A Gift From the Culture. Not ones to pass up an opportunity, we collared Banks at a signing session for his new novel Transition (making sure to bag a copy for ourselves) to get the lowdown, at least from the author’s point of view.
“I have mixed feelings about it, as I knew I always would,” says Banks, “although I could, of course, have said no! The longer it is before the novels get filmed, the longer they stay entirely mine. One thing I particularly worry about in the Culture stories is how the spaceships might look. The Culture ships are quite boring, and obviously if you say ‘design a spaceship’ to a designer, they don’t want to do boring. They don’t want to do a shoebox with the edges smoothed off. But happily that doesn’t apply in this case because there’s only one ship that appears at the end of the story and it isn’t a Culture ship anyway. That’s such a nerdy thing to worry about, isn’t it? But nevertheless, I am. My inner nerd is concerned.”
Banks’ inner nerd is less concerned about Dominic Murphy though: “He seems like a thoroughly decent chap, and more to the point, I was deeply, deeply impressed by White Lightnin’. It’s the work of a properly mature director. You really wouldn’t guess it’s his first major film. I liked the way he handled a really bizarre subject and some very disturbed characters, without downplaying the results of their behaviour: he just lets them speak for themselves in a very matter-of-fact kind of way, without editorializing.”
But why opt, out of all the stories, for A Gift From the Culture, we wonder? The State of the Art might have been a more obvious choice, for example, since it takes place on Earth (nice way to keep the budget relatively low) and sets up the character of Diziet Sma, who reappears in the third Culture novel Use of Weapons.
“Oho!” says Banks, in response to the latter point, and waggles his eyebrows. “I think, as ever, it’s as much about what it sparked in Dominic and the direction he thinks he can take it. I think he wants to do a lot to it, rather than just literally filming what’s there, which again is the danger you run when when you’re a writer and you let your stories go like that.”
So what’s with the eyebrow thing? Are we looking at a potential series here? “I think it’s obviously in the back of everyone’s mind, but a lot depends on what happens with this one. My agent certainly loves the idea that it’s the start of something big. We’ll see. It’s less of a commitment to make a short story that takes place on a planet that’s not that different from Earth. When people start talking about filming one of the full-scale novels, you’re talking serious CGI, tens of millions of dollars of budget… I suspect if I was a bigger name in the States it might have happened by now, but the vast majority of people in Hollywood have never heard of me.”
That said, this isn’t The Culture’s first brush with our Earth cinema, as Banks reveals that the second novel The Player of Games was once on the agenda at Pathe. “About ten years ago a chap from Pathe persuaded them to buy the rights – not just the option but the rights,” he says. “It got some way along and had some serious money spent on it, even by Hollywood standards, and there were various names attached. But eventually the guy whose baby it was left, and it was then cancelled by the incoming team, for the usual reasons: if it had been a success it would’ve been his success, and if it’d been a failure it would’ve been their failure. That was the closest we’ve come before, to a proper nibble. It wasn’t even a nibble, it was a real bite, but we couldn’t reel it in! Hah! Couldn’t land the blighter!”
Banks concludes the interview by reiterating something he’s said before: that of all his books and stories, the one he’d most like to see filmed is Consider Phlebas, the Culture’s full-length debut. “They could have it that nobody dies at the end and they all go off and be happy together. They could cast Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis as [non-Culture shapeshifter] Horza… I wouldn’t mind as long as they just did it.”
Banks is practically jumping up and down as he says “I want to see the big action sequences! I want to see the gigantic ship hitting the even more gigantic iceberg! I want to see the fight underneath the hovercraft, which I’ve always imagined being lit by strobes! I want to see the big trainwreck stuff at the end and the firefights!”
Even with beautifully designed, complicated spaceships? “Oof, non-standard Culture ships…” He muses and tuts. “Yes! Even with that. I could grit my teeth.”