Along Came a Spider

David Cronenberg Adapts Patrick McGrath's Diary of a Madman

 Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes as a mental patient discharged into his grim childhood neighborhood and his even grimmer, hallucinated childhood memories, is David Cronenberg's latest adaptation of an unadaptable piece of literature. This time it's Patrick McGrath's first-person novel, about a schizophrenic whose mother called him Spider, which the writer himself had fashioned into a screenplay. (The film opens February 28; see the review.)

What went right? When the dapper filmmaker came to New York last month to accept a lifetime award from Fangoria magazine, he visited the genial writer at his Lower Manhattan loft to discuss that question over bagels and lox and under the eye of a stuffed bat.

Arachnophiles Cronenberg (left) and McGrath
photo: Robin Holland
Arachnophiles Cronenberg (left) and McGrath

DAVID CRONENBERG: This is the perfect fusion. I can't actually remember what you did, Patrick, and what I did. So I will take all the credit for it.

PATRICK MCGRATH: So many directors pawed that script.

DC: A few in Toronto, actually. Before you sent it to me you sent it to Atom Egoyan, and then he sent it to Don McKellar. I was at a party with these guys and I said, "I'm probably going to be doing Spider," and they said, "Oh yeah, we read that." They knew the script. They thought it was terrible.

PM: In those days, it was terrible.

DC: After Atom saw Spider at the Toronto Film Festival, he said, "I read the script, but I didn't see the movie—until now." He thought the device of having Spider wandering around in his own memories was very theatrical and wouldn't work cinematically.

J. HOBERMAN: Did the movie surprise you, Patrick?

PM: I've had two of my books filmed now [the other was 1995's The Grotesque, starring Theresa Russell and Sting]—the first shock is that you have lived with the physical idea of your characters for so long that the first time you see the actor, the body is all wrong.

DC: Isn't that one of the things about

schizophrenia—you start to think the body's all wrong?

PM: That's very true. I'd actually seen a "Spider" walking along the Mile End Road in East London. He looked like Samuel Beckett—lanky, sort of tall, the legs too long. But the first morning, the lanky Spider in my head dissolved when I saw Ralph coming down that street.

DC: You actually thought of Samuel Beckett?

PM: Oh, very much—

DC: Because it's not in your novel, obviously. And Beckett became our touchstone. I didn't know that you had had him in mind.

PM: Purely physically. I'd not read him at that point.

JH: David, what was your sense of the novel?

DC: The literary conceit of the book is that the journal is the book. The book Spider was actually written by Spider—which means that he's a rather good writer, as good as Patrick anyway. I knew it wouldn't work. But I did love the idea of the journal because I felt that we needed something physical to show that he was obsessive and that he was gathering evidence about the crime. I didn't realize at the time that I was making him be a kind of artist, a strangely spooky failed artist.

PM: When I first began the novel, it was about Spider's father. But then as the story developed, I thought it should be told from the point of view of the child, who would be a man remembering this traumatic period. And then it became interesting. I began to think in terms of a psychotic narrator—which you didn't care anything about.

DC: No. I cared about the vibe—the "Spider vibe." It seemed very rich to me. And I felt that if we symptomized it, it would narrow what could be quite universal in its implications. If you label a character schizophrenic, then the audience has a chance to stand back and say, this is a crazy person. That's not me. I wanted them to be Spider.

PM: Spider was somebody that I couldn't have imagined if I hadn't grown up around Broadmoor, where my father was chief psychiatrist, and then worked at a mental hospital in Canada. That was crucial, meeting men who were schizophrenic and whose lives had been completely wrecked by that illness.

DC: Patrick, you were apparently made somewhat nervous by my decision to take away the voice-over.

PM: I suppose that I started building the character of Spider in the belief that he only mattered in terms of all this wild stuff going around in his head—the seething inferno that was his brain.

DC: We did that with Ralph's hair. We did the seething inferno of the hair.

PM: Did I have a scene in the [original] script where we see Spider's parents actually having sex in bed in the house?

DC: I don't think so.

PM: It wasn't there?

DC: No, it's funny because the Japanese distributor went on and on about how that was such a great scene—the parents having sex and the boy watching. And I thought, well, I don't think that it's in there, but I'm not going to tell her, because it's her favorite scene in the movie. And then, when they finally saw the movie, I didn't hear a word about "where's that scene?" But there was never really the primal scene itself. It pleased me to confound the Freudian paradigm as well, because ever since I read Why Freud Was Wrong, a very scholarly, brilliantly written book by Richard Webster, I can't go along with that paradigm anyway.

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