The Little Stranger novelist Sarah Waters talks haunted houses and awkward heterosexuality
The Little Stranger
In many films, the post-World War II era in the United Kingdom is a romantic landscape of Union Jack bunting and tea parties, plucky soldiers reunited with families that kept calm and carried on. The Little Stranger paints a distinctly less merry vision. The film stars Domhnall Gleeson as the middle-class Dr. Faraday who becomes enraptured by a crumbling estate and its aristocratic inhabitants, including the prickly Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson). For author Sarah Waters, this is the second novel to be adapted for theatrical release: the critically acclaimed South Korean thriller, The Handmaiden, was based on Waters’s novel Fingersmith. But The Little Stranger film is a far more straightforward representation of the author’s book, a deeply unsettling novel about class structure and the way history comes back to haunt us all.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you think the film The Little Stranger as an adaptation captured your original vision for the book?
SARAH WATERS: I do, I do. I’m absolutely thrilled with it, I must say. I’ve only seen it once, I’m longing now to see it again. I first met Lenny Abrahamson a few years ago, the director, and I struck then just the way he talked about the book and just the sort of film he could make. The thing I remember being struck by most of all was how completely he’d got the book, you know, as I had written it. He really understood what I was trying to do in terms of Faraday and in terms of class. So I new it was going to be in a safe pair of hands. He inevitable had to make a few changes to the story, but he just gets it.
Movies and television shows so often romanticize the 1940’s, but The Little Stranger very decidedly does not romanticize the era.
No, it doesn’t. And I think that’s always been important to me. All of my novels have been set in the past and I hope I’ve always tried to look at those eras in a slightly new way, seeing as my first two novels had a Victorian setting and we’ve all got lots of stereotypes about the Victorians, so I tries to slightly play around with those.
But moving into the 1940’s was fascinating because of course the Victorians are quite far away now, but the forties is still relatively new, it’s within living memory. I wanted to capture the complexity of the era because we do see it a lot portrayed on-screen and it’s often done, as you say, in a very lazy way really, full of stereotypes about the pluck of people in the war and G.I.s. It’s a very heterosexual image we always get of the War in the U.K., so I’ve tried to overturn that in previous novels.
And with The Little Stranger, I wanted it to be unsettling. I wanted it to capture the uncomfortable tensions of the period, because looking at the 1940’s, it seems to me it was totally riven through with conflicts around class and gender. It was class in particular that drew me when I was writing The Little Stranger. So to see the story become a film that I think is an unsettling thing in all sorts of ways, just feels perfect to me.
Many of your novels feature lesbian protagonists. Is there hinting that Caroline Ayers could be read in that way?
Well, do you know what? It’s funny, I’ve never intended that. Because of my other novels, people have read her as a kind of repressed lesbian, or a not that repressed lesbian. But I must admit that’s not something I intended. Somebody once described her to me as an awkward heterosexual and I thought that was a really nice way of putting it. She’s certainly not a conformist in all sorts of ways, and I enjoyed that about her. I really enjoyed writing Caroline, I missed her when I finished the book.
So I just saw her as awkward. She’s socially awkward, emotionally awkward; she’s been drawn back into this life that she doesn’t want so, in another setting she would thrive but in the setting she’s in in the story, she’s far from thriving really. So she seizes on Dr. Faraday as her way out of that life just as he seizes on her as his way into the life. So it’s doomed. It is heterosexual, isn’t it, in the boldest kind of way, but all the desire is flying around it for the wrong things really.
It’s a very transactional relationship.
It is, isn’t it? Which, of course, a lot of heterosexual relationships have been over the years, I think.
The Little Stranger has been compared to Shirley Jackson and Henry James—especially The Turn of the Screw. What were your literary influences?
I’ve always been a big reader of spooky stories. As a child it’s pretty much all I read really, ghost stories. And I watched a ton of horror films which were probably as big an influence on me as anything so that’s made it also very satisfying that a novel of mine has been turned into a horror film. I’ll now hopefully influence other impressionable young viewers.
But I did have some models in mind: you can’t write a haunted house novel and not be aware of the tradition that’s there, so The Turn of the Screw, I was very conscious of that. I love the subtlety of The Turn of the Screw, the fact that everything takes place in a slightly obscured kind of way on the margins when you’re not quite sure what’s going on, so I definitely tried to get a bit of that.
There are a couple of references, not that submerged, to things like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, you know—the house that’s stuck and can’t evolve, and the people in it doing the same. And then Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ It was really interesting writing this Gothic novel, how readily you find the novel itself echoing other classic texts, and I really enjoyed that. I really wanted the book to do that, and hopefully suggest other texts and models for other people. Rebecca! I suppose that’s another one, that drive down the winding drive.
Your novel Fingersmith was adapted into the South Korean movie The Handmaiden, set in Japanese-occupied Korea. What was it like seeing your work transformed in that way?
It was great. It was a very different experience from this, The Little Stranger, because I was much less involved with The Handmaiden. It was done very much at a distance from me, but Park Chan-wook was incredibly generous: he sent me a couple of drafts and he really wanted me to be happy with the film.
It was just a treat to see it, and see how good it was, and then to see it being so popular has been another treat, although what I really found just fascinating was how far it could move away from the original novel in terms of period and in terms of culture and ethnicity, and yet retain so much of the novel. Its surface is so different from the book, but its heart—it really captures the book. As a writer, just on the technical level, I found that fascinating, just how a story can migrate and still be the same story. I love that about it.