Philip Pullman considers Hogg’s literary masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) to be “One of the great works on that sinister border between the supernatural and the psychological. Its atmosphere is unique, its penetration is shocking, and the truthfulness of its account of religious mania is both timeless and timely.”
Although it’s been adapted for radio and stage (there’s a fantastic new production coming to the Edinburgh Lyceum in October) and for all its modern overtones, Confessions is one of Scottish literature’s “Top Ten Never Films”
Always, it seems, someone, somewhere, at some time in the Scottish literary scene is ‘working on a film script’ of Hogg’s classic novel. The Scotsman reported yesterday (10 September ’09) that Ian Rankin is working on one. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of his plans. As he says in the article, many have tried before.
The late Bill Douglas (1934-1991), like Rankin an Edinburgh writer (and actor/director), left a draft script amongst his papers. Peter Mullan and Douglas Gordon have both announced in the past that they’re ‘working on a script’ of Confessions, and writer/producer/director Michael Barry has drafted a script of a feature film titled Justified, “loosely based on Confessions […]A modern political thriller with psychological/ religious undertones”.
To date, though, Hogg’s intensely packed story of psychological duplicity has proved resistant to adaptation [although I did once see a very creaky, early 20th century Dutch version]. Rankin has a better chance than most of succeeding where others have failed. Among his recent work is an adaptation for BBCFour of his short story ‘Reichenbach Falls’; a story loosely based on Hogg’s novel. He’s working with the same team for the film script: scriptwriter James Mavor and producer Peter Broughan (the same Broughan who received funding in 1996 when Mullan was mooted as a possible Director). They’ve also secured ‘development funding’ from UKFC and Scottish Screen. So all the signs seem positive.
I hope Douglas Gordon (‘Zidane’ 2007) is involved. His creepy video installation Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1995) won the 1996 Turner Prize. The set included three clips from early films of Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde showing the doctor’s transformation from good to evil. Through his link to Stevenson, Gordon captured perfectly the blurred boundaries, shifting perceptions and psychological broodiness of Hogg’s novel.
In November 2006, while exhibiting his Superhumanatural installation, Gordon announced he was working on a ‘big screen version’ of Confessions. Interestingly, he included a version of Rankin’s short story, ‘Sinner/Justified’ in the exhibition catalogue.
Rankin has talked of writing a script of Confessions in the past. This time last year, he wrote a preface to the new Canongate editon of the novel. The Scotsman printed a long extract [extracted below] and it’s interesting for the insight it gives into how Rankin might tackle the script:
OK, SO THERE’S THIS GUY CALLED George. He’s out with his mates, enjoying a light-hearted game of tennis and a few drinks.
But a psychotic stranger keeps getting in the way, hassling everybody and creeping them out – almost wanting them to lash out at him. This masochist follows the group everywhere, trying to make sure they don’t enjoy themselves. He doesn’t like it when people enjoy themselves. His principal aim, however, is to stalk George. The stalker’s name is Robert, and he’s George’s brother, or, more accurately, his half-brother (though Robert doesn’t know this). Oh, and he’s a religious zealot who thinks everyone around him is an infidel. The action takes place in a country where the two political parties loathe one another.
And did I mention that Robert is a serial killer, with George as his next target?
Dear reader, I can imagine myself sitting down in the office of a film production company and pitching this to them. It would be ticking all the right boxes. Thriller – popular genre. Serial killer – good and scary. Political dimension – adds extra demographic. Psychological element – makes it more grown-up. Religious spin – plausible. The producer (Hugo Boss suit; shades; pony-tail) would be asking where it’s set. And I’d have to answer truthfully: Edinburgh mostly, in the Scotland of the early 18th century … and it’s not even my story. It belongs to James Hogg, who published it in 1824. It’s called The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and without it there’d be no “Dr Jekyll” or “Miss Jean Brodie”. It has provided the central trope in Scottish literature, yet seems as fresh as the day it was written – and more relevant than ever.
The producer might be looking a bit baffled by now, so I’d appeal to his cultural grounding by adding that its on-screen progeny include Angel Heart and Fight Club.
All of this, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what makes Justified Sinner one of the true greats of world literature.
Here’s a link to a bibliography of articles on Hogg’s novel at The Sickly Taper