When the Oscars are broadcast on February 28, Carol, a lesbian love story set in 1950s New York, will be competing in six categories, including Best Adapted Screenplay. I recently spoke to screenwriter Phyllis Nagy about the process of adapting a novel, The Price of Salt, written by her late friend, the legendary Patricia Highsmith.
How did you first become involved with Carol?
It originated with a producer in the UK, where I was living at the time, who had purchased the rights to the novel. She went searching for a writer and, fortuitously, the first place she went was my agent. I was just at that time deciding to really write screenplays. I had said no to a bunch of things, but because of my friendship with Pat Highsmith, I thought, “All right, this is surely calling to me from some deep subconscious place.” It took 18 years to complete. Had I known it was going to take that long, I might have passed. [Laughs]
You captured the spirit of the novel, but made a number of crucial changes. How did you tackle the adaptation process?
I began that process by thinking it would be relatively easy because it’s a slim novel and, in terms of plot, it didn’t appear to be too complicated. Then I sat down to try to do it and realized this is not your garden-variety literary adaptation. Because there is—brilliantly, in the novel—no real attempt to draw a character out of the love object—and that’s how it should be. Therese sees what she’d like to see in Carol and we get these shards of information about her through the unreliable but truthful eyes of love. That was the first huge hurdle. Also, my friendship with Highsmith stood in the way for a long time. I thought, “She’d kill me if I came up with another adaptation that she hated,” because she famously hated all of the ones that she’d seen.
How do you think Highsmith would’ve reacted to this adaptation?
First of all, I know she would’ve been over the moon about Cate Blanchett. That would’ve been her type. But I think she also would’ve really admired Rooney Mara’s take on her. I mean, that’s not what Rooney was doing, but Therese is Pat Highsmith’s surrogate. As such, I think Pat would’ve taken an even keener interest in what Therese was up to. I think she would’ve really admired the aesthetic of the film. She was very keen on the visual arts herself. And I think she would have finally, finally said, “This is okay,” maybe begrudgingly. We didn’t betray the fundamental backbone of her work.
Carol is now playing in wide release.