Louis De Bernières
As Captain Corelli’s Mandolin comes to the Rose Theatre this month, Tina Lofthouse catches up with the novel’s acclaimed author about its success
It has been 25 years since the publication of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but its appeal endures, spawning both a film and now a major stage play. So what made it such a hit?
“Everyone loves a Romeo and Juliet story,” says Louis de Bernières of the novel that made his name. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin tells of the romance between a doctor’s daughter on the island of Kefalonia and a captain in Mussolini’s army while also portraying the devastation and brutality brought to Kefalonia during the Second World War.
Adds Louis: “It might be a stereotype but women love books which are about relationships, and men like books where a lot of things happen. This has both. And I put a special effort into characterisation as my previous agent told me that she didn’t think I was all that good at characters so I thought, ‘well, I’ll show you.’”
While Captain Corelli is set on a sun-drenched Greek island, it was written back in south west London while Louis, who was brought up in Surrey, was working as a supply teacher. “I was mostly working in Southfields SchooI so I found a room in Earlsfield, just across King George’s Park, so I could walk to work.”
It was even rumoured that he’d written the book in Earlsfield library. “I mainly wrote at home on a little word processor, which I called Esmerelda,” he recalls. “But I did do some research in the library. They ordered books for me and were incredibly helpful.”
And so the novel was born, becoming the publishing sensation of the 90s, although not without controversy, with some of the islanders heavily disputing the portrayal of the Greek resistance fighters. Louis retaliated but when the novel was translated into Greek he did make some key changes, adding that the history was complex.
It went on to become a blockbuster film – again causing controversy, though this time with the casting of Nicolas Cage as Corelli, bringing the American actor a raft of criticism for his attempted Italian accent.
It was reported that Louis was not a fan of the film. Indeed, he was quoted as saying that it was, ‘horrible seeing your baby’s ears being put on backwards’. But Louis insists that he was not talking about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. “People keep getting me wrong on this. I’ve always wished I could bump into John Madden [the director] to assure him I was talking generically and not about that film.”
“There were things I didn’t like about it, like unnecessary story changes, but I loved the soundtrack, the cinematography was amazing. I had been hoping that they would find a lively little Italian to play Captain Corelli but they got Nicolas Cage instead who is a tall and slightly lugubrious American.
“He is a great actor but I wasn’t certain he was the right choice. David Morrissey was fabulous; Penelope Cruz was adorable as she always is, and it was a great role for John Hurt. I don’t feel as negative about the film as people say I do.”
So what does he make of the stage play? He has seen a rehearsal and is thrilled. “It was extremely good. I was really impressed.” It is, of course, a challenge bringing such an action-oriented story to the stage. Laughs Louis: “One of the main characters in the book is a pine marten. There aren’t very many professional pine marten actors around. And how do you cope with a parachute drop? But as the story is character-driven it should take very naturally to the stage.”
Louis, at 64, has had a hugely successful writing career, spanning different genres, including poetry and the children’s book Red Dog, which was also turned into a film. But he admits that after penning Captain Corelli it wasn’t easy to write another hit. “People were expecting me to do the same thing again but differently. They want you to pull off the same trick and are disappointed in you if you don’t. It took me about 10 years to come up with Birds Without Wings, which is a much better book.”
Next up for Louis is a a book of short stories in the summer and another children’s book will be out next Christmas – his third and also about a dog but this time set in England in Edwardian times.
He is also a talented musician, playing a number of instruments, and is recording his fourth CD with the ambition of recording all the songs he has ever written before he dies.
Louis often shares his daily life in his Facebook posts. He now lives in Norfolk with his two children, aged 11 and 14, with which he has joint custody. In some posts he wonders if he has turned garrulous but the fans who follow his online musings think not. His reflections are certainly candid.
“I haven’t done a post for months now as my life got so complicated, I didn’t know what to say. But I will start it up again. I love having that interaction and discussion with people and it is a chance to write informally and be completely off the wall.”
Could it turn into a book? “Lots of people have said I should publish them but I don’t even know how to retrieve them all. But there is a substantial volume.”
And does he miss south west London? “I still visit as my ex in-laws live there, as do two of my nephews. I did love living there. I used to walk a lot on Wimbledon Common and I used to walk from Wandsworth to Earlsfield – there was an engineering shop I loved, Belton and Slade, where you can get anything! I also went to Tooting for the Asian shops: I miss it but you can get all that stuff in Norwich. Well, nearly all – you can’t get the vast iron karahi but then I already have one from my forays in Tooting.”
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin comes to the Rose Theatre, 23 April to 12 May.
Read our interview with the stars of the play!
We have two tickets up for grabs for 23 April, including programme and complimentary drink. Email firstname.lastname@example.org by 10 April. One winner to be selected at random.