Jonathan Franzen intentionally writes books that wouldn’t make for good TV. “If it’s better as something on the screen, then maybe we don’t need novels,” he says.
But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to adapt his dense literary fiction for the screen. In 2011, HBO attempted to turn his acclaimed, ambitious novel “The Corrections” into a series, but then gave up on the project a year later.
Early this year, Showtime enlisted Franzen as an executive producer and writer for a 20-episode adaptation of his 2015 book “Purity,” starring Daniel Craig.
“Purity” is about a young woman named Pip who’s trying to find her mysterious father with the help of Andreas Wolf, a sexy, German Julian Assange type.
In an interview, the Santa Cruz-based author, 56, talks about his work and possible screen versions of it:
Q The writing of “Purity” seems more conversational than your previous books.
A There was a point after “The Corrections” where I no longer wanted to write in the really dense way “The Corrections” was written. That kind of prose that could be accused of calling attention to itself. I decided to really try to submerge the prose and only bring it out on special occasions, which I do here and there in the book. I felt I didn’t have to show off what I could do with language anymore, and no longer wanted to.
Q How did you settle on a young woman as your main protagonist?
A It was dictated by the story I was going to tell. It’s a book about a marriage, and, at a certain point, I imagined there might be a child from that marriage. Because I had this charismatic heterosexual figure in Andreas Wolf, I wanted to play with the possibility of this relationship between them.
Q You see it as a book about a marriage?
A To me, the hottest stuff in the book is that narrative about that mistaken, young, idealistic marriage. And what I was imagining for that story was so intense, at least to me, that I didn’t want to just sit down and lay it on the reader on Page 1. Some of the stuff is possibly disturbing, and I don’t want to freak the reader out. So the book starts with a woman who won’t talk about her marriage, and then you get the story of that marriage, and then it kind of ends with the aftermath of that marriage.
Q The parts of the book about the dysfunctional marriage are so dark and funny.
A I’m so glad to hear you say “funny.” I’ve noticed that friends of mine who were in intense relationships that didn’t end well, in many cases with somewhat mentally unbalanced people — they found that part of the book funny. And then the ones that are in great, normal, healthy relationships are like, “Oh, this is weird. I don’t know what to make of this.”
Q Did you base it on your own failed marriage?
A Well, broadly speaking, yes. Did I take incidents from my life, or did I take a character from my life? No. I was really at some pains, both for artistic and ethical reasons, to make sure that everything that was hot in the book was invented.
Q When you wrote “Purity,” did you imagine it would make a good TV series?
A No, I didn’t. But a lot of the storytelling method actually turned out to lend itself well to visual storytelling.
Q You’re helping with the script. Will it hew to the original plot?
A I’m not at liberty to say, but I can say I’ve located one or two things in the book that I would have done differently. I identified some choices I made where I now see there were better choices.
Q Are the TV writers intimidated by you?
A You know, I welcome opportunities to feel like an ordinary person and to feel humbled. And when I’m sitting in a room with Showtime people and Daniel Craig, there’s a certain lip service paid to the fact that “Oh, yeah, he’s a good novelist.” But I’m not the elephant in that room, that’s for sure. I’m the writer over in the corner, which is how I like it.