His tales of a big-hearted Botswanan private investigator have delighted millions, but how would Hollywood treat The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency? Alexander McCall Smith recalls Mma Ramotswe's colourful journey from page to screen
There is plenty of free advice available for authors when film-makers come calling. This ranges from "Don't even let them in the door" to "Sign the contract and then forget about it". There are some crude variants of the latter, largely involving taking the money and running. All of this advice is heartfelt by those who offer it. All of them claim to have had a bad experience of the process. Some claim still to be in therapy after their contact with the film industry.
Of course there are plenty of writers who actually want to become involved in film. There are stories – probably not apocryphal – of people driving past the houses of well-known film producers and directors and throwing their screenplays over the wall into the garden. This, they say, is the only way of getting the manuscript anywhere near a producer. I doubt if it is at all effective. There are probably Hollywood gardeners who have a large collection of screenplays submitted in this way.
It is also said that waiters in Hollywood restaurants all fall into one of two categories. One is composed of would-be actors, eager to be noticed by the casting agents eating lunch, and the other is made up of those trying to get their screenplays read. The actor-waiters spend a lot of time serving the food from such a position that their profile shows to best advantage; the writer-waiters slip the screenplay in with the bill. Neither group, I suspect, are very successful. But hope springs eternal.
Novelists do not always have to resort to such tactics. They tend to be approached with offers for something called an option. This may be done by anybody associated with the film industry – there are presumably tea-boys (not that I can imagine the film industry has such people any more, but their equivalent must exist) who purchase options, but these are more usually held by the actors (big actors), producers or directors. Or they may be held by various companies that float around the film world waiting for their chance to do something. Some of these have made films, others may aspire to making a film one day. They usually have very impressive names – such as the Grand International Mega-Film Corporation. The grander the name is, the less likely it is that the company has ever made a film. As a general rule, it is a good idea to avoid doing business with anybody who claims to be both grand and international. Grand is all right, provided one shows adequate caution, but when combined with international and mega, it is best to be sceptical. Film companies with pithy, quirky names are usually very sound and have made numerous films. So when I found myself dealing with a company called Mirage, I realised that this was very good news indeed. I also found myself dealing with a firm by the name of Miramax, which also inspired confidence.
I was approached years ago by a producer called Amy Moore, who wanted to take an option on the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. At that stage, when the books were not particularly well-known, I was happy to give an option without thinking very much about it. Amy proved a tenacious advocate of the series and she passed the first book on to Anthony Minghella, the director of The English Patient and other great triumphs. It is possible that she threw it into his garden, but I seem to recall somebody saying that she gave it to him while he was taking a walk. I am not sure whether or not that was in his garden.
Minghella was very supportive of the book and I believe that he took an option. That was an option on the option, an option/option. Then Miramax, the company set up by the Weinstein brothers, came onto the scene. They took an option on the option on the option. So that, at least, was clear. Matters were clearly progressing.
Many years passed. The film industry, like Chinese diplomacy, operates on a timescale that is quite different from that on which mere mortals operate. Options stretch into a future so extended that it looks infinite. Nine hundred year options are but as nothing. Indeed, this mentality applies not only on the temporal scale, but also on the territorial. I have a film contract which, according to one of its clauses, gives rights throughout the universe. It really does. I find that most impressive.
During these passing years, I had regular contact with the film people. Sometimes there was nothing for them to report other than to say that they were convinced that something was about to happen. On other occasions, there were physical objects to be shown at the table – photographs, drawings of possible sets and so on. I had one such lunch in New York with Anthony Minghella, where a portfolio of set drawings was produced. This looked promising.
The waiter arrived. I took an option on the risotto, which eventually arrived in such small quantity as to be virtually invisible. This was a very fashionable New York restaurant – so fashionable that the people having lunch really could not be bothered to eat, as it interfered with the business of talking and being seen. I felt extremely hungry and was obliged to take out a substantial option on the olive bread, to the point of eating all of it.
However, we were getting somewhere now. I liked Anthony Minghella. I had met him before in London, at a dinner at Amy Moore's house, and I found him agreeable and interesting company. One imagines that famous film directors will be flashy – which Minghella most certainly is not. He is a highly sympathetic and courteous man. And he makes the most wonderful films. As a great fan of the Patricia Highsmith Ripley novels, I was intrigued to see what he would make of The Talented Mr Ripley. In the result, Minghella's film of that book was a masterpiece, with a wonderfully creepy performance by Matt Damon. Highsmith described psychopathy better than any other writer, and Minghella not only succeeded in getting this across, but also managed to do so against the most physically lush, beautifully textured background.
I could not have been more fortunate than to be optioned by Anthony Minghella and Mr Harvey Weinstein, with a side-option by Richard Curtis, the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Anthony Minghella and Richard Curtis wrote the screenplay together, and showed it to me. That was the moment at which I would find out what they were going to do with the books.
I read the screenplay in one sitting and had coffee in London with Amy Moore to tell her my reaction. It was very positive – I thought that they had managed to preserve the ethos of the series very well. They had come up with one or two innovations, but those seemed to be quite reasonable and I could see why they would want to add them. So I said that this was absolutely fine and we moved on to talk about something else.
More time passed. The business of making a film is immensely complicated, and this time was no doubt necessary. But then it happened. Suddenly they started to talk about a date. Anthony Minghella went off to Botswana and casting agents started to look for Mma Ramotswe, the central character. That was to prove extremely difficult. I had hoped that they would find an African actress. I knew that such a person was most likely to be found in South Africa, where there is a film and television industry, but this proved to be very difficult. There were plenty of people who saw themselves as Mma Ramotswe, and indeed in Botswana itself there had been an audition call at which long lines of traditionally built ladies had queued up for hours to be given the chance to be considered. But nobody seemed to be emerging.
People contacted me, offering to play the role. I explained that it was nothing to do with me, but many of them did not believe this, and persisted. Once, when I was on a book tour in Australia, a very persistent would-be Mma Ramotswe cornered me in my hotel for half an hour. I thought that she was very charming and suitable and drew the company's attention to her. But my own candidate was in Botswana. It so happened that she was the Minister of Health there, the wonderful Sheila Tlou, but I was sure that she would do the role admirably. She had already played Mma Ramotswe with distinction in a local dramatic performance, and I took the view that it was but one step up to do the same on screen. Again, I told the company about her and urged Anthony Minghella to meet her in Gaborone. He did so and he realised, I think, what a fine person the minister is. Although she was not eventually chosen for the role, he gave her a speaking part in one of the scenes, and I am sure that she carried it off with distinction.
Suddenly the filming started. I went out to Botswana to visit the set and to meet the actors. I met Mma Ramotswe, played by the African-American soul singer, Jill Scott, and Mr JLB Matekoni, played by the superb classically trained Zimbabwean actor, Lucian Msamati. There they were, suddenly before me, two characters with whom I had lived for almost ten years. One might have expected that it would be a remarkable, testing moment, but in fact it was very ordinary. And the reason for this is that I never have a clear image in my mind of what my characters look like. I know how they think and how they behave, but I never think very much of their external appearance. So there was no question of my judging the casting according to how the actors looked. What was obviously more important was how they interpreted the role. In this respect, they seemed to me to be ideal. Both struck me as modest, thoughtful people, who appreciated the significance of what they were doing for the people of Botswana. The Botswana Government had shown its faith in the film by investing heavily in it. The film also meant a great deal to people in Botswana because they knew that it would determine how many people in the outside world viewed their country. A great deal was at stake.
Anthony Minghella certainly appreciated this. I very quickly came to realise that in a remarkably short time he had come to an understanding of the country, and of just why it is such a special place. He clicked with the people, and they with him. It was a marvellous stroke of good fortune that the film, and the series which it is hoped will follow it, have fallen into the hands of a great director who has found it in his heart to celebrate this beguiling African country.
Shortly before I left the set, Minghella drew me aside and showed me a sequence he had shot a few days previously. He had it on a laptop computer and we watched it in private in a room of one of the buildings constructed on the set. It was a scene where two people are reunited, and it was a profoundly moving one. I could not stop myself – the tears flowed freely. I suppose that all the emotion I had felt over the whole project came to a head now that I saw the little miracle that he was performing. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Don't worry – that's exactly what it did to me."
I have yet to see the film. They offered to show it to me in the studios; I am waiting, though, for the premiere showing in London in mid-March. But I already sense the gratitude that I shall feel on that night towards the remarkable Mr Minghella and those who have worked with him.
The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency will be shown on Easter Monday, 24 March, on BBC1. The Miracle at Speedy Motors, the ninth book in the series, is out now, published by Little, Brown, priced 16.99.