Poetry in Image: Jenni Fagan on taking The Panopticon to the screen

The Skinny speaks to Jenni Fagan in the pause between the 2013 publication of her outstanding and controversial debut novel and the release of its film adaptation - hopefully with controversy still to come.

Feature by Alan Bett | 13 Jan 2015
  • Jenni Fagan - untitled

‘Life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, endure adversity and stumble from defeat to defeat.’ The words of bohemian queen and diarist Anaïs Nin, namesake of Anaïs Hendricks, the heroine of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon. The story of Hendricks, a fictional child of Scotland’s care system, consists almost solely of suffering, loss, adversity and defeat. Like its protagonist, accused of violent crimes and sent to a care unit, Fagan's book had a troubled start in life.

“I basically ripped it apart,” says Jenni, herself a product of Scotland’s care system, of her first draft. “Cut it in half, rewrote it in the first person, in Scottish and it just settled.”  The book was originally written in the third person, in standard English. “It just didn’t work and I decided I had to rewrite it from her [Anaïs’] voice because me trying to be an author was getting in the way of the story. The thing that was important was who this character was and as soon as I began to allow her to speak it came to life.” It’s a stubbornly authentic voice, full of fire and brought to life in a broad Scottish vernacular littered with fucks and cunts.

While admitting she’s a fan of Scots language in literature – “James Kelman and Kathleen Jamie, Tom Leonard’s poetry,” – Fagan in no way attempted to capitalise on the fame of Irvine Welsh or any other to put their mother tongue phonetically onto the page. “Actually I was studying at the time,” Jenni remembers of writing the book. “…and one of the tutors said ‘How’s your book going?’ I said I’ve had to rewrite it in Scottish and she said ‘Oh well, there goes your chances of being published.’” This linguistic bigotry has provoked two Booker Prize jury barneys – one in the wake of Kelman winning in ‘94, and the other ensuring Welsh could not the year previous. A section of literary society want tales of the disadvantaged served with a side of condescension, never from their perspective, certainly never spoken in their own unrefined voices. “There’s something like 289 languages spoken in British schools today,” Jenni continues. "We’re all used to hearing every accent, every voice… it’s a wee bit old fashioned to think that English literature is English literature and there is one way to do things. The world novel means to make new, so to reject anything that’s doing something in a new way is just crazy.”

"We’re all used to hearing every accent, every voice… it’s a wee bit old fashioned to think that there is one way to do things" - Jenni Fagan

“It’s not really a vanilla book,” she concedes. A 15 year old who drops LSD for breakfast can be as troubling as they are intriguing. The scene later that day, of this same girl in native American headdress at a drug pick-up, head full of acid and pills, stomping in circles – powwow – wow – wow – wow – is as unsettling as it is intense. “I like writing characters that perhaps have the ability to make you feel a bit uncomfortable and make you think about things. I knew it was a risk for a debut novel.”

The Panopticon itself is a children’s home, named after the Greek panoptos – seen by all - a design which offers full visibility of each life contained within it. It’s a strong and relevant metaphor for a system which affords no privacy. “It’s very invasive,” Jenni says. “If you go into a kids' unit people will have read about your entire life before you even get there, complete strangers. I think what’s just as invasive are the preconceptions from society about who you are because of the circumstances you live in, which obviously as children you don’t choose.” A fictional setting, the Panopticon was born from the author’s interest in structuralism and Foucault’s 1975 work Discipline and Punish. “I was working with women in prison at the time and I just realised that I had this unique insight into this world and also I was very interested in literary theory, social theory and philosophy and these things just began to merge into this idea that we all live in a Panopticon to a degree.” Jenni adds ominously that in our CCTV age, "every year that becomes more pronounced.”

Jenni’s early life in care has been dealt with elsewhere. Understandably, given the subject matter of the novel, the press covering The Panopticon was saturated in such references. But it’s something the author has been reserved and economical with, her standard reply that the story is not hers alone. She states today: “The care system is something I’ll never write about again.” While none of the many novels she has mentally mapped out draw from this particular part of her life, they still exist on the periphery, a place she feels she will always write from. Her eagerly awaited second novel The Sunlight Pilgrims is the first of these, publishing in July this year alongside a collection of poetry. “It’s set during a very extreme freak winter,” Jenni says. “And its, eh…I won’t describe it yet.”

This year also sees the film adaptation of The Panopticon in development with the production company Sixteen films, home of Ken Loach (his son Jim taking control here). Rumours circulated of film rights offers made from far and wide; probably big studios, possibly big cash. But an enquiry in this direction is shut down with a stern reprimand. To talk about such things “isn’t nice”, Jenni suggests. When interviewed some years back she stated: “If you’re going to record a real voice, a voice that isn’t heard in society, why would you then write about it in the third person?” Her choice of production company then guarantees to project that same authenticity onto the screen, to give voice to the voiceless. We can hope to be spared Hollywood smiles and a sugar coated cop-out ending.

Ken Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty suffered an 18 certificate for their 2002 film Sweet Sixteen, a story with a not dissimilar backdrop of juvenile delinquency. The rating denied those it intended to reach the chance to see it (legally, at least). When speaking with Laverty last year he was adamant: “It was the aggressive use of the word cunt … All these kids, they can send them off to Iraq, they can send them to prison, they can get married, have children but they can’t be allowed to hear the word cunt.” So in this company we can expect no dilution when Jenni’s screenplay of The Panopticon reaches cinemas. “There’s no desire to dampen down any elements of it", she confirms. “It’s up to everybody involved to facilitate it in a way that doesn’t make it gratuitous.” Quite a challenge when considering that narcotically charged pow-wow scene. “Yes, it’s getting that surrealism, those visual things. The big thing about the book is that we get to be in Anaïs’ head. How do I get to translate that to the film without consistently relying on voiceover or some device like that? That was really the challenge… But in the film you can do it with a look and you can do it with a song …it’s trying to find the poetry in the images.” 

Jenni’s main concern seems to be casting Chief the iguana, a reptilian observer to Anaïs' drug addled carnage. Finding Anaïs combines a further challenge with an outstanding opportunity. “If I was a young actress I’d be looking at that role and thinking I could make that mine.” Jenni says. “When you saw Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver for the first time ...you were just like 'wow'. So for me I’m hoping that they’ll find a young actress over here that has that thing. I feel that we’ll know her when we see her.”

If this film follows the Loach ethos in selecting untrained actors close to the reality of the script, then somebody with a similarly troubled and rootless past might have their life transformed. That idea connects with the core of The Panopticon. “The novel started as a question,” Jenni concludes, “which was, is it possible to achieve autonomy? So, if society has been consistently telling you something your whole life… is it possible for a person to reclaim themselves from that and achieve the future that they’ve chosen?” Jenni Fagan herself exists as proof to the positive. 

More from The Skinny:

• Ken Loach collaborator Paul Laverty on Jimmy's Hall

• Jenni Fagan on making Granta's Best of Young British Novelists list

• Watch our video coverage from the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival

The Panopticon is available in various formats. Fagan's next novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, will be published in 2015 by William Heinemann. http://thedeadqueenofbohemia.wordpress.com