It’s December 8th, which means you can officially watch the film adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s 2020 apocalyptic novel, Leave the World Behind, on Netflix! Directed by Sam Esmail, the simmering thriller stars Ethan Hawke, Julia Roberts, and Mahershala Ali—and you’ll even catch Rumaan and his family in a scene.
To celebrate the premiere, we asked Rumaan what the experience was like, his favorite book-to-film adaptations, and more.
How does it feel to see your characters come to life on screen?
Writing is, for me anyway, an intensely private experience. Me, in a room, with my computer or my pencil. While it’s gestating, if that’s the right verb, a work isn’t a book at all. It’s like that interstitial phase where a caterpillar is ensconced in chrysalis, no longer itself, just a mush of something on its way to life as a butterfly. That is when I come to know the characters, or hone them. In this period, I have an intimate relationship with people I have made up, and it’s completely private—my agent hasn’t read the book, no editor has, no friend or reader has.
Just me and some people I made up; it’s almost like a delusion, a sort of madness. So there’s one kind of shock when those people (again, not real people) are revealed to my agent and editor, later, if I’m lucky, to readers. It’s dislocating, it’s strange, to see reviews mention these people (once more, not real people). It’s a whole other level of oddity to see these imagined people embodied by real people, on a screen. I won’t even get into how bizarre it is that in this case some of those real people are actors to whom I have some relationship as a person who sees movies, who is touched by the popular culture. I mean, I had a debilitating crush on Ethan Hawke as a teenager and now he’s playing a character I created. Deranged!
What’s your favorite book to movie adaptation (other than your own)?
I think it’s expected that writers must complain about Hollywood always getting it wrong. But there are some superb films that had their genesis in books. Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is one of my favorite movies; it’s based on a beautiful story by Andre Dubus, called “Killings.” The adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs is, I think, better than the novel; ditto The Godfather, or indeed Mary Harron’s American Psycho.
I don’t think one has to choose between a book and a film. The director James Ivory has made some lovely films based on books I adore. But his visions of those books don’t supplant the existence of those works. Ivory’s The Remains of the Day cannot rival the novel, but that book is a masterpiece, the bar too high. Look, I love Henry James, but Ivory’s film of The Golden Bowl was, for me, more entertaining than the book. And sometimes a good movie can return you to the book; I saw Ivory’s Howards End when I was in school, loved it, and picked up the book and loved it more. (I was a horrible nerd in high school, alas.)
If you could see any book adapted, what would it be?
I would love to see some brave directors translate books that are weird and provocative and wily—I think the results could be so fascinating. I would love to see film versions of Patrick Modiano’s books, specifically After the Circus, Little Jewel, and Paris Nocturne. I’d love to see a film adaptation of Marie NDaiye’s That Time of Year. I’d love to see some four-hour long adaptation of The Golden Notebook, or Underworld. Actually, maybe you’d need nine hours for DeLillo.
If you could play a minor role (or extra) in the adaptation, what would it be?
I am in the movie of Leave the World Behind. The writer and director Sam Esmail kindly invited my whole family to his set; we appear as extras in a scene at the beach. It was an absolute thrill to see the set, to watch the cameras, the many (so many!) skilled people who must work together to create a movie. It was an absolute joy to be there that day, and my kids are thrilled that we made it into the film’s final cut.
How was your relationship with the book changed during the process of adaptation?
Time’s inevitable passage changes my relationship to my work. I look back at what I wrote seven years ago and feel very little recognition, and often a kind of bafflement. Whatever I am writing at the moment is what feels most vibrant and alive to me; what is already fixed on the page, or floating around on the vapor of the internet feels like nothing at all, to be honest, a trace of a person I no longer am. I very rarely think about what I’ve written before; I find it discomfiting, sometimes unpleasant. I prefer to think of what I’m writing now: that private madness, that secret place.
Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind is available from Ecco Press.