Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller – Chosen by Barnaby Walter

I was probably too young to read Notes on a Scandal when I first came across it. The novel came my way as many do: a film was being released and the promotional trailers and posters kept catching my eye at the cinema or on the way to school. I heard the film being reviewed, very positively, on the radio and both its main actors, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, were up for Oscars for their performances. I was 14, so technically wasn’t allowed to see the film, which carried a 15 certificate.  So, when I was in Borders (a massive one, practically the size of Heathrow, now no longer in existence) I sought out the original novel. Thankfully, books don’t carry age ratings or content guides, so I was able purchase it immediately and find out what the fuss was all about.

Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett in the film adaptation of Notes on a Scandal (2006)

The novel is about an illegal affair between an underage teenage boy and his art teacher and, more importantly, the discovery of this crime by the teacher’s colleague, Barbara, who narrates the story. Although this could, in other hands, have bordered on a crime thriller or a suspense mystery, Zoë Heller instead makes it a meditation on loneliness and class envy. It’s about an intense female friendship and an exploration on how trust and control can go hand in hand.

Barbara decides to write up the incident that took part between her colleague and an underage school pupil. Her decision to do this is made in retrospect, and we are told the story of Pottery teacher Sheba Hart and her illegal affair with a minor through notes collected together based on Barbara’s memories and discussions with Sheba. The novel effortlessly adopts a patchwork narrative, with small pieces of information (some more trustworthy than others) coming together to make up its complex dual study of its subject, the sex offender teacher, and the storyteller, the lonely unmarried older woman.

As I said at the start of this, I was probably too young to read the book, and there were a couple of teachers at my school who were surprised when they saw me reading it. They never expressed disapproval, they were just disconcerted that I, a teenage boy, would want to read or even care about a book that was, on the whole, about middle-aged women and female discontent. I didn’t care one jot. I even recommended it to the book club held in our school library (or, as they liked to preposterously call it, the Resource-based Learning Centre), so eventually a whole group of us young teenagers were reading it and discussing it at lunchtimes. That’s the joy of a good book, after all: the ability to recommend it and have a good long chat about it.

When the film came out on DVD I bought it immediately on day of release and watched it three times in a quick succession. I absolutely loved it and in my view it is still to this day an example of how a near-perfect adaptation can radically shift and alter its original source. I’ve never been overly precious about books I have loved or admired being adapted for the screen. Books and cinema are two different mediums and should be treated as such. A screenwriter shouldn’t have to conform to a book’s structure or chronology. Just because it worked for the author when they were putting it down in prose doesn’t mean it will work in script-form. One of the most startling changes in the film is the re-positioning of Barbara’s obsession with her younger, attractive colleague and how she uses her knowledge about her affair with the underage boy. Making Barbara’s homosexuality overt in the film adaptation is probably the script’s biggest departure from the text. In Heller’s novel her motives are, to some extent, open to interpretation. It is suggested, through her many observations about her lack of family life, that she is a lonely spinster seeking friendship, and for this reason, when she finds a friend, the relationship usually become very intense. But Richard Eyre’s film, using a cracking screenplay from revered playwright Patrick Marber, does make the possibility of the narrator’s repressed (or perhaps not so repressed) lesbianism a key feature. As I watched the film for the first time, I was surprised how Barbara’s obsession with Sheba in the film is made into something obviously sexual, clearly marked by a scene where she strokes her friend’s arms whilst the camera moves across Sheba’s chest and cleavage.

Whereas Heller kept the slight hint of unexpressed sexual desire hidden just slightly out of reach, the film pulls it front and centre. I have read reviews and discussion forums online about this very point and find it fascinating how violently some react to it. There have been accusations of homophobia, of ruining or sexing-up of Heller’s novel. I, however, was very impressed by what the film had done. Literature and cinema are my two main passions and I was delighted to find an example of how both could coincide so beautifully and yet be so wonderfully different.

Both the book and the film have become increasingly important to me as the years have gone by and the focus on adaptation has shifted to the long-form shows of Netflix and HBO. Notes on a Scandal proved it could tell a whole story with such precision in 86 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact TV drama is now heralding a new golden age of dramatic fiction on our screens. But the single-feature still has legs: all it takes is the right novel and the right writer and director to make the format work as well as it did here.



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