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Doctoring The Script

A License to Dispense Various Treatments

March 02, 1997|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in England, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

LONDON — It's a sure bet that come Oscar night "The English Patient" will be a topic on everyone's lips. But they'll be talking about the Scottish Doctor too.

John Hodge, who is nominated in the category of best adapted screenplay for his film version of Irvine Welsh's novel "Trainspotting," has a second profession. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh for five years, took time off to develop screenwriting projects including his first film, "Shallow Grave," but has subsequently returned twice to medical practice.

In fact, he has just completed a lengthy stint at a London hospital, which he embarked upon after the British opening of his second film, "Trainspotting," a smash hit in his native land.

"In Britain, the publicity and media interest in 'Trainspotting' were universal," said Hodge, 32, a winning, quietly spoken man with a diffident manner and a sly, oblique sense of humor. "There was a period when it seemed you couldn't go outside your door without seeing billboards of (lead actor) Ewan McGregor in the film. It all got [to be] too much for me, and I decided I had to get away from it."

First he had to finish his third script, a sweet-sour screwball comedy titled "A Life Less Ordinary," which was recently filmed in Utah with McGregor and Cameron Diaz in the leading roles. But Hodge also applied for and landed a six-month contract job as a senior house officer at St. George's Hospital in Tooting, south London, which he began in August and completed two weeks ago.

"I was working the wards, seeing emergency admissions and taking clinics," Hodge said. "It was a middle-ranking job. Basically you work for a consultant and see his patients. I really enjoyed the medicine in the past six months. There's no doubt in my mind--being a doctor is a more interesting job than being a screenwriter."

What makes him think so?

"You work with other people, you see more interesting things," said Hodge. "Disease and treatment are genuinely intriguing. Whereas a screenwriter sits alone in a room."

He reacted with shy amusement when it was pointed out that Los Angeles is teeming with screenwriters who would kill for his track record--three screenplays, three produced films and an Oscar nomination already. Yet he retains another profession he deems more worthwhile.

"It must be something about my middle-class Scottish background, I suppose," he said finally. "If you don't go into medicine, law or accountancy, you're some kind of deviant. The idea is to seek security, I suppose, and I still feel that."

Hodge knows how to play his conventional upbringing for wry laughs. Since the news of his nomination broke, he has been besieged by people in the media asking him how he feels about it.

"I was surprised," he said. "But I was brought up to a lifetime of understatement and restraint. That's the normal means of communication where I come from. People ask how I feel--that's an incredibly intrusive question. I've spent 32 years not saying how I feel. Why would I want to start now?"

He paused to let this tirade sink in: "But it's a great honor, isn't it?"

Hodge admitted he felt some trepidation in adapting Welsh's novel. "Trainspotting" is a harsh, uncompromising portrayal of a group of young heroin addicts in Edinburgh, and though Hodge felt he was on familiar ground--he knew of the drug's medical effects from his hospital training--the book was already on its way to becoming a bestseller with fiercely protective devotees by the time the film opened in Britain.

"My main worry was about Irvine," said Hodge. "I knew the quality of his writing, and thought if he didn't like the film he would be an articulate, powerful critic."

In fact, Welsh liked Hodge's adaptation (he described it as a "remix") and even took a cameo role in the film as a gesture of his acceptance. As an adapter, Hodge was far from slavish; his screenplay does not remotely echo the structure of Welsh's novel.

"It was too complex to adapt directly," Hodge said. "But then I think adapters make the mistake of being far too faithful to the text, especially with classics. You'll never match a great work of literature on film, but you can write a film which is great in itself. Look at Shakespeare--he'd take a story and make his own play based on it only very loosely."

He has written all his three films with the same partners--producer Andrew Macdonald and director Danny Boyle. Hodge and Macdonald first met in 1991 through Hodge's sister, who was sound editor on a short film Macdonald had produced.

At this point "Shallow Grave" consisted of three handwritten pages of notes. But he and Macdonald developed the story together and a year later attended a Scottish film seminar where they met David Aukin, head of drama at Britain's Channel 4 television. Aukin liked the script and agreed the channel would provide majority funding for the film. Boyle, with a background of theater and TV drama, was Macdonald's first choice to direct.

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