In a big action adventure film coming to a cinema near you, Samuel L Jackson plays US President Alan Moore who finds himself in a spot of bother – stranded in a hostile wilderness with only a kid armed with bow and arrows for protection against would-be assassins.
In a peaceful street in Gosforth, Newcastle, author Dan Smith is about to explain how he came to write the novel of the film, both of which are called Big Game.
First, though, nursing mugs of tea and hunched over Dan’s laptop, we marvel at snippets of the film online – at the adrenaline-pumping comic book escapades which include the President and the boy, Oskari (played by Finnish youngster Onni Tommila), crashing through forest trees in a freezer cabinet to elude baddies in a helicopter.
It strikes me that in real life you could not do this and live to tell the tale. “You would die, wouldn’t you?” I say.
I would be a rotten director of action adventure movies.
Dan, who saw an early cut of the film, is smiling broadly. “I have to say,” he says, “I really enjoyed writing the book. It was great fun.
“And I thought the film was really good and the reviews have been great. It really is just good fun. Everything these days seems to be dark and moody and almost depressing.
“This is not ashamed to say, ‘We’re having some fun here’. There are some jokes in it and some explosions. It’s kind of a throwback to the 1980s and the things Spielberg made. One review said it was a good film for dads to take their sons to.”
He confides that his own children, 13-year-old Anisha and Ashwin, who’s nine, glanced at their dad when Samuel L Jackson, in classic action adventure style, turns on the baddies in one of the climactic moments with a cry akin to “Take that, you mother....” Well, you can probably guess the rest.
Dan says if the producers are hoping for a child-friendly certificate, they will probably have to remove this moment of action hero exuberance.
You won’t find it in the novel, that’s for sure. In fact, there are some significant differences between the two.
But to begin at the beginning...
Over the last few years Dan has been making a name for himself as a writer of adult thrillers set in exotic locations – largely inspired by a childhood spent partly in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia.
The first, Dry Season, was followed by Dark Horizons, The Child Thief, Red Winter and The Darkest Heart.
But at one point, during a lull, Dan had a good idea for a book for younger readers.
The result was My Friend The Enemy, a heart-warming adventure set during the Second World War and with children as the heroes. It was published by Chicken House, which specialises in children’s books, and it was followed by a companion, My Brother’s Secret, reflecting the German perspective.
Recalls Dan: “Barry Cunningham, who runs Chicken House and was the first to give JK Rowling a publishing contract, sent me an email about half way through 2013 saying, ‘We’ve come across this film script and I think it would make a really good book. Have a read of the script and see how you feel about turning it into a novel’.
“My first reaction was that I wasn’t sure how I would feel about turning somebody else’s story into a book. I’d never done anything like that before. Then I started reading and found I was already thinking about how I could do it.”
The screenplay for Big Game was written by Finnish writers Jalmari Helander and Petri Jokiranta. The film, a British-Finnish venture, was directed by Helander, who had earlier success with a film called Rare Exports, and shot in Bavaria because, according to Dan, Finland didn’t seem quite Finnish enough to the Finns in charge.
This is the movie world we’re talking about.
Dan gave Barry Cunningham the thumbs up, the Chicken House boss secured the blessing of the movie people – still buoyed, perhaps, by their success in attracting a star of Samuel L Jackson’s magnitude to the project – and then Dan started to tweak the screenplay.
“They said they didn’t want a direct novelisation,” says Dan. “They said, ‘We want a book that is going to come out first and will stand on its own and possibly even outlive the film’.
“I think I might have struggled to write a direct novelisation.
“There are certain things that happen in the film that are maybe a little far-fetched but actually do work on film.”
In the film there are two principle locations, the Finnish forest into which Oskari, on the eve of his 13th birthday, embarks on a coming-of-age hunting mission to prove his manhood, and the Pentagon where the President’s minders are either for him or (covertly) against him.
In both film and book, a plot to shoot down the President’s personal plane, Air Force One, is put into action, depositing Alan Moore, contained in some kind of protective capsule, into the depths of the Finnish forest – where Oskari finds it.
In the film there are political reasons for the assassination attempt which the audience will fully understand.
In the book, though, we see things through Oskari’s eyes so we know nothing more than he knows.
Dan tells me: “I thought, if I’m looking at writing a book for children aged about 10 to 14, they’re not going to care about rendition or the war on terror – but they will want to know about how this 13-year-old boy survives in the forest. So I decided to tell it all from the boy’s point of view.”
Noticing that the screenplay was devoid of women, he introduced the idea of Oskari’s mother.
Although she’s gone now, she would once tell Oskari scary stories about the shape-shifting monster, the näkki, that supposedly inhabits the lakes and swamps.
Making him hot chocolate, she would reassure her slow-growing son that one day he would be bigger and stronger than some of the boys who now give him a hard time.
Dan also gave particularity to a landscape that, in the film, is merely a picturesque backdrop for some astounding action sequences. The forest wilderness is on Mount Akka and the lake is Tuonela.
“I’m not exactly Bear Grylls or Ray Mears,” he says, “but when I was growing up I did go into the jungle and go on fishing expeditions up the river. Now my attitude is that I’m like an armchair survivalist.”
Dan, whose childhood travels came courtesy of his dad, a chemical engineer who enjoyed working overseas and once managed a rubber plantation in Brazil, admits he has never been to Finland. But the internet, he says, is a fantastic research tool.
Neither has he met Samuel L Jackson but after we watch on the laptop the star’s introduction to Big Game at the Toronto International Film Festival, he ventures that he is “really cool”.
Big Game, he reckons, will be – “must be” – his most lucrative book so far.
“It is really exciting, the fact people will be watching the film and reading the book, and it has sold really well. It has gone all over.”
Readers in Romania, Portugal, Spain, Vietnam, Holland, Germany and, of course, Finland are among those who will get to read Dan’s words in translation.
Dan is also pleased that his children’s books enable him to go into schools.
“As an author of adult books I used to go into libraries and talk to seven or eight old ladies who’d turn up for the tea and biscuits. They were always very attentive and ask lots of questions but when I go to schools I get to stand in front of 300 kids. Younger readers are so much more excited about writers and they don’t have the inhibitions that adults have about expressing their opinions. So much is new to them.”
Dan seems amused that he started writing children’s books because of a break in his schedule but they are proving to be more successful than his adult titles, none of which has made it to the screen. The two Second World War books are also being read in schools.
I think we can expect more of them in the future.
- Big Game, published by Chicken House at £6.99, is in the shops waiting to be picked up by young readers in search of a 264-page thrill ride.
- Big Game, the film, will be in UK cinemas on May 8.