We Need to Talk About Kevin: how one novel made it to film

From a novel that nearly didn't get published to a film that almost didn't get made, tracing the path of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

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The winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year might have been Terrence Malick's spiritual drama The Tree of Life, but it was the premiere of another film in this vintage year for the French film festival that really got people talking.

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Last Updated: 20 June, 2011 UAE

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And yet this was an adaptation of a book written as a series of letters, with an unreliable narrator and a distinct lack of a hero, which offers up its seismic scene - a schoolboy, Kevin, goes on a Columbine-style rampage at an American high school - within its first few pages. Not exactly the stuff of gripping thrillers. Nevertheless, the excitement in Cannes came from the realisation that the Lynne Ramsay-directed We Need to Talk About Kevin had indeed captured the ambiguities and resentments of Lionel Shriver's controversial book, but was also a hugely satisfying piece of cinema, too.

Which, as Shriver herself said in 2006, is no easy matter. That it's taken more than five years to develop and finance the adaptation of Shriver's book, which won the Orange Prize in 2005, reflects how difficult the journey has been. After all, at a Cannes press conference Ramsay admitted she had wanted to make a film of Shriver's novel ever since reading just three chapters of the book, first published in 2003. Indeed, she said, Tilda Swinton had always been the number one choice for the crucial role of Kevin's mother, Eva - who so devastatingly picks apart her life in an attempt to try to work out whether her son's actions were, in some way, her fault.

In the end, Ramsay got her wish. But the intervening years were troubled to say the least. There was talk of a new, linear plot in which the massacre would be revealed at the film's denouement (Shriver, in characteristically straight-talking fashion, told The Herald in Scotland it was "a bad idea and I don't mind saying so"). There were doubts whether the film would actually work at all, reflected in such severe financing problems that Ramsay rewrote the script in its entirety to make it easier to shoot. It didn't help, either, that Gus Van Sant's 2003 school shooting drama Elephant was cited in the investigations into a 2005 high school massacre in Red Lake, Minnesota, in which seven people died. It was discovered that the gunman Jeff Weise had watched the film just 17 days previously.

Probably not the kind of infamy BBC Films was after - even though We Need to Talk About Kevin is less a book about how to commit a massacre and more an investigation into why it might happen. But this tortuous route to the completion of a film which, thanks to its success at Cannes, will be one of the most eagerly awaited films of late summer, is rather apt. Because, as difficult as it may be to believe, Shriver's million-selling, multi-award-winning book had just as tricky a gestation.

When Shriver completed We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2001, she was more than aware that she'd written a dark, challenging book. But these weren't the overwrought ramblings of a blushingly young, first-time writer: Shriver, 44 at the time, had already written six generally well-regarded, if not bestselling, novels. Nevertheless, even she was unprepared for the multiple rejections from publishers her book would receive. In a self-penned piece in The Guardian after the film's premiere, she reprinted one of the e-mails from her agent: "For the life of me, I don't know who is going to fall in love with this novel... People in the industry are so thin-skinned right now - I just don't think anyone is going to want to publish a book about a kid doing such maxed-out, over-the-top, evil things - especially when it's written from such an unsympathetic point of view."

Admittedly, her agent was operating in the uncertain, post September 11 world. But in the end, Shriver found a small publisher who was willing to take a chance on a book that, as Shriver admits, "breaks one of the last taboos: a mother disliking her son". But when We Need to Talk About Kevin was finally packaged up and sent out for review, the early reactions were reminiscent of some of the feedback Shriver had endured from horrified publishers. "Glib and affected... Shriver overwrites in every direction," noted The New York Times. "Discordant and misguided," said Sarah A Smith in The Guardian. Shriver even pointed those gathered at The Orange Prize ceremony in 2005 towards the Irish Times review, which lambasted the novel's "voyeuristic, conversational nastiness" and "repulsive story".

"Yeah, it's hilarious," she said at the press conference. "It's the most vicious review I've ever gotten."

By that point, Orange Prize firmly in hand, she could laugh at the irony. But the fact she was there at all was down to the way the book polarised opinion. Shriver has always admitted that it is either loved or hated. It exploits the worst fears of parents - that their children will turn into monsters - and does so in an acerbic, harrowing and often very witty way. But those who loved it, really loved it.

A New York Observer piece by Philip Weiss in 2003 noted that the novelist Pearson Marx had begun sending copies around the city ("for the last few weeks, just about the only word I've heard from literate women I know has been "Kevin".) Before long, it was an underground, word-of-mouth hit, mercifully free from any publishing hype or buzz (not least because the publishers couldn't afford it.

"It was readers who got me here," Shriver noted at the Orange Prize. "Single, individual readers who bought the book and told their friends."

It also helped that its publication coincided with the rise of the book club: We Need to Talk About Kevin's many issues - nature versus nurture, why people have children, the difficulties of motherhood - are made for lengthy post-dinner discussions. Go online, and there are a startling number of blogs from amateur reviewers, book-club members and general readers who have never been moved to express their thoughts on a book before but felt Shriver's novel was too important to simply put down and forget about. It became such a cultural byword that one of last year's most wittily titled science books was called We Need to Talk About Kelvin.

Come September, of course, there'll be a tie-in book to go with the film, and many hundreds of thousands of new readers will have the same discussions. Some will love the film and hate the book. Those who took the book to their hearts might find some of Ramsay's more daring stylistic scenes an irritation. Whatever: We Need to Talk About Kevin has become a 21st-century cultural juggernaut in a way that Shriver could never have predicted when the rejection letters were piling up: last year it beat 14 other Orange Prize winners to become the best book in the prize's history.

As for Shriver, she thinks Ramsay's adaptation is "excellent: well cast, beautifully shot, and thematically loyal to the novel". And, for a novelist who wasn't at all afraid to have her protagonist tell son Kevin "I often hate you", if she didn't like the film, she certainly wouldn't be shy about saying so.