From Page to Screen: Darkest Hour by Anthony McCarten

 

About the Book: Darkest Hour by Anthony McCarten

May, 1940. Britain is at war. The horrors of blitzkrieg have seen one western European democracy after another fall in rapid succession to Nazi boot and shell. Invasion seems mere hours away.   Just days after becoming Prime Minister, Winston Churchill must deal with this horror—as well as a sceptical King, a party plotting against him, and an unprepared public. Pen in hand and typist-secretary at the ready, how could he change the mood and shore up the will of a nervous people?

In this gripping day-by-day, often hour-by-hour account of how an often uncertain Churchill turned Britain around, the celebrated Bafta-winning writer Anthony McCarten exposes sides of the great man never seen before. He reveals how he practiced and re-wrote his key speeches, from ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ to ‘We shall fight on the beaches’; his consideration of a peace treaty with Nazi Germany, and his underappreciated role in the Dunkirk evacuation; and, above all, how 25 days helped make one man an icon.

Using new archive material, McCarten reveals the crucial behind-the-scenes moments that changed the course of history. It’s a scarier—and more human—story than has ever been told.

Read my review of the book here.

About the Film: Darkest Hour (2017)

Darkest Hour is directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based on his own book, Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought England Back from the Brink.  It stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill with a supporting cast made up of the cream of British acting talent.  The film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor and Makeup and Hairstyling as well as being nominated in three other categories.  Gary Oldman also won a Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance.

More information about the film can be found here.

Book v Film

Like the book, the film concentrates on the few weeks in May 1940 when the British Government faced swift German advances into Belgium and the Netherlands, the prospect of the capitulation of France, the possible entry into the war of Italy as an ally of Germany and the loss of the British Expeditionary Force pinned down in Dunkirk.  It dramatizes some of Churchill’s most famous speeches both to the House of Commons and to the Nation and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in finding the emotional power of them still as great as they must have been to people who listened to them at the time.

The film uses the character, Elizabeth Layton (played by Lily James), who was one of Churchill’s personal secretaries between 1941–1945, to give the viewer a close-up view of Churchill, including idiosyncrasies such as emerging from his bath disrobed and breakfasting on whisky and soda.   We see her taking dictation from Churchill as he works on his speeches, constantly drafting and redrafting until he’s happy with them.

What I particularly liked about the film is the tender portrayal of the relationship between Winston and Clementine Churchill.    It left me with a real sense of the vital role Clementine played behind the scenes, providing moral support and encouragement to Winston when necessary, offering the family life that allowed him respite from the cares of state, as well as gently chiding him about his rudeness and lavish expenditure.

There were a couple of scenes that made me remember I was watching a feature film such as a scene where Churchill uses an unusual (for him) form of transport to get a sense of what the people of London feel about the calls from Halifax and others in the War Cabinet to consider a negotiated peace.  However, what it did show is the true courage and resilience displayed by Londoners during the War and, particularly, during the Blitz.

Across the board, the acting performances were terrific and the period detail seemed spot on from the costumes, to the hair and make-up, to the scenes in the War Rooms, Buckingham Palace and Chartwell, Churchill’s family home.  All these details give a visual sense of the wartime atmosphere that it is difficult for a book to recreate (although there are some fabulous photo’s in the book).

The Verdict

The book has fascinating detail drawn from contemporary sources – minutes of meetings, letters, diary entries – about the meetings of key players in the War Cabinet and the conversations that were taking place behind the scenes.   It also provides the reader with biographical detail about Winston Churchill and his chief opponent, Lord Halifax, which is absent from the film.  On the other hand, the film highlights the role of Clementine in supporting Winston during this difficult period whereas she is largely absent from the book.

Purely from an entertainment point of view, I would say the film wins, not least because of Gary Oldman’s superb Oscar winning performance.  However, for those interested in the period and wanting more background information, the book makes fascinating reading.  I liked the fact that some dialogue between Churchill and Halifax the author imagines at one point in the book made it into the screenplay and final film.

What do you think?  Have you read the book or seen the film?

Book Review: Darkest Hour by Anthony McCarten

Darkest HourAbout the Book

May, 1940. Britain is at war. The horrors of blitzkrieg have seen one western European democracy after another fall in rapid succession to Nazi boot and shell. Invasion seems mere hours away. Just days after becoming Prime Minister, Winston Churchill must deal with this horror—as well as a sceptical King, a party plotting against him, and an unprepared public. Pen in hand and typist-secretary at the ready, how could he change the mood and shore up the will of a nervous people?

In this gripping day-by-day, often hour-by-hour account of how an often uncertain Churchill turned Britain around, the celebrated Bafta-winning writer Anthony McCarten exposes sides of the great man never seen before. He reveals how he practiced and re-wrote his key speeches, from ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ to ‘We shall fight on the beaches’; his consideration of a peace treaty with Nazi Germany, and his underappreciated role in the Dunkirk evacuation; and, above all, how 25 days helped make one man an icon.

Using new archive material, McCarten reveals the crucial behind-the-scenes moments that changed the course of history. It’s a scarier—and more human—story than has ever been told.

Format: Paperback (336 pp.)         Publisher: Viking
Published: 28th September 2017   Genre: History, Non-Fiction

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ Amazon.com ǀ Hive.co.uk (supporting UK bookshops)
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find Darkest Hour on Goodreads


My Review

Subtitled How Churchill Brought England Back from the Brink, the book provides a fascinating insight into one of the most pivotal periods of the Second World War, namely the few weeks in May 1940 when the British Government faced the reality of German advances into Belgium and the Netherlands, the prospect of the capitulation of France, the possible entry into the war of Italy as an ally of Germany and the loss of the British Expeditionary Force pinned down in Dunkirk.

The author provides the reader with a potted history of Churchill’s childhood, school days, military service, career in journalism, marriage to Clementine Hozier and his entry to Parliament. For those interested in learning more about Churchill’s early life and his troubled relationship with his father, Randolph, I can recommend searching out the film Young Winston starring Simon Ward.   The author also provides biographical information about Winston Churchill’s main opponent in the War Cabinet, Lord Halifax.

The key new ground explored in the book is the author’s contention that Winston Churchill, at the urging of Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, did at least consider the terms on which negotiations with Germany for peace might take place. It’s clear he had significant reservations about such a course of action, both for strategic reasons and also because it flew in the face of everything he believed in. Churchill had recognised as early as 1933 the threat that a resurgent Germany might pose and had urged rearmament. At the time, this view was against the sway of public opinion and in Government circles there was greater fear about the spread of Communism than the threat from Hitler. Churchill was proved right in his warnings when on 9th May 1940 the Germans invaded Belgium and The Netherlands.  No wonder then that the idea of peace negotiations never progressed beyond discussion.

Thank goodness that key figures of the time chose to record their thoughts in diaries and journals giving the author access to fascinating insights into the shifting opinions and power struggles within the War Cabinet and wider Government. The reader gets an almost ‘fly on the wall’ view of the meetings, the discussions, the arguments, the motives and the political manoeuvring of the various individuals involved.

The author spends quite a bit of time examining the impact of Churchill’s oratory, dissecting key speeches and the phrases in them that have now become the stuff of legend – ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’, ‘victory at all costs’, ‘we shall fight on the beaches’. He provides fascinating information about the literary inspirations for some of these speeches and Churchill’s meticulous preparation for them.

McCarten also argues that the idea to co-opt the so-called ‘little ships’ to aid the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk (Operation Dynamo) was the brainwave of Churchill himself, an idea for which he has not previously been recognised. The result of the operation was that 330,000 men were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk ensuring they were available to defend Britain against a possible invasion.

Among the many things that struck me whilst reading the book was the so-called ‘fog of war’. Today, our military leaders have drones, satellites and instant communication at their disposal. It’s easy to forget what it must have been like to make crucial decisions about the direction of a war based on information that could be both unreliable and/or out of date. This was a time when communication still relied on letters, telegrams or face-to-face meetings.

One can’t really review a book like this without mentioning some of the idiosyncrasies of Churchill the man that it reveals. For example, his preferred breakfast tray which would contain a glass of Scotch and soda between the rack of toast and plate of eggs, his penchant for a two-hour afternoon nap followed by a hot bath from which he would rise clad only in a bath towel or sometimes not even that. Furthermore, one has to marvel at his capacity for alcohol. After the aforementioned whisky and soda at breakfast, ‘a bottle of Pol Roger champagne would be consumed at lunch, and another bottle at dinner, chased by a fine port or brandy digestif into the small hours’.  The author reports that when Churchill was asked once how he managed to drink during the day he replied, “Practice”.

The author describes Churchill when he became Prime Minister as ‘an amalgam of irreconcilable parts: showman, show-off, blow-hard, poet, journalist, historian, adventurer, melancholic…’. But, by golly, if ever there was a case of the right person in the right place at the right time, it was Winston Churchill in 1940.

I found this book absolutely fascinating and would recommend it to anyone interested in this period of European history or the role of leadership in time of crisis.  It has extensive references and also some fabulous photographs of which my favourite is one captioned ‘Londoners listening to Churchill’ which shows people in a pub gathered around the radio.

Darkest Hour is my choice for this month’s theme of the Bookbum Book Club. It also forms part of my From Page to Screen Reading Challenge. Look out for my comparison of the book and the film (for which the author wrote the screenplay) in the next few days.

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In three words: Compelling, detailed, insightful

Try something similar…Darkest Hour (the film, starring Gary Oldman)


Anthony McCartenAbout the Author

Anthony McCarten’s debut novel, Spinners, won international acclaim, and was followed by The English Harem and the award winning Death of a Superhero, and Show of Hands, all four books being translated into fourteen languages. McCarten has also written twelve stage plays, including the worldwide success ‘Ladies’ Night’, which won France’s Molière Prize, the Meilleure Pièce Comique, in 2001, and ‘Via Satellite’, which he adapted into a feature film and directed, premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. Also a filmmaker, he has thrice adapted his own plays or novels into feature films, most recently Death Of A Superhero (2011) which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Anthony divides his time between London and Los Angeles.

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