Jack Thorne interview: adapting Let The Right One In for the stage

We talked to writer Jack Thorne about adapting a much-loved book, trees, and the nature of romance...

Warning: this interview contains spoilers for Let The Right One In.

Jack Thorne knows all about the pain of being a teenager. He’s a massively prolific writer whose projects for the stage and screen have included quite a few stories about teenagers – Skins is the obvious one, but you might also have caught his supernatural drama The Fades, or seen the film The Scouting Book For Boys.

Taking all that into account, then, it seems almost inevitable that when a stage adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire story Let The Right One In was mooted, Thorne was the one who got the call. We caught up with him as the show moved to the West End and grabbed itself a whole pile of glowing, five-star reviews to find out more about the production…

Hi Jack! Let’s start at the beginning. How did writing a stage adaptation of Let The Right One In come about?

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So, John Tiffany, who directed the show, was brought the idea of doing a play by [producer] Marla Rubin, and he liked the idea. I’d never worked with John but I knew him, and had always really admired his work, so when he asked if I’d be game for it, I said, “you bet.”

It wasn’t one I pursued massively, it just sort of came to me; it would never have occurred to me, to be honest, it’s a big old scary thing to do, but doing it with John Tiffany is a different thing. If a West End producer had brought me the idea of doing Let The Right One In, I would have probably gone, “no, thanks very much, good luck!” But I think John can do magic things on stage.

I love the book, by the way. I think the book is amazing, and that’s every reason I wouldn’t have touched it if the wrong person had brought it to me, because you don’t want to fuck up things like that. You don’t want to be the one who does the terrible thing that screws up the thing you love.

It must be harder when you love something. If you’re looking at something and thinking, “well, that could be better…” that’s one thing, but if it’s something you think is already brilliant…

Exactly. I think the worst job in the world at the moment is probably JJ Abrams’ job. In lots of ways, it’s the best job in the world, and at least George Lucas has done the prequels, but I think it must be very scary inside his head.

Yeah. I mean, he can think “as long as it’s not as bad as Attack of the Clones…”

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Anyway, let’s get back on topic. Let The Right One In the novel is pretty sprawling compared with the play or either of the films, really. How did you decide what to cut and what to keep in?

We just made the decision quite early on that it was Oskar and Eli’s story, and in some ways, the whole play should be able to be told in their jungle gym with just the two of them. That was the starting point, and then it was just going, “okay, what’s their story?” Just distilling that down, and then working out what other stories we needed around that to tell that central story.

I mean, this might be blasphemy, but I like the American film; it really pared things down to just the two of them.

And everyone’s got their own Oskar, do you know what I mean? The interesting thing about the American film is that Oskar is quite sexualised. He’s a peeping Tom, he’s a very different sort of Oskar from the one in the Swedish film and in the book, and obviously those filmmakers were looking to tell a story that was personal to them – about the moment they got interested in girls, really.

I think your Oskar is maybe a bit more sympathetic than some of the others.

Yeah, I think, in terms of the amount of space we give it, we probably put more emphasis on Oskar’s parents than anyone else has done, because the context of Oskar was important to us, and that does make him seem slightly more sympathetic. But he’s still – you know, he’s not perfect. And the bullying scenes are quite severe – when you see them on stage, they’re different. There’s probably a bit more bullying.

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The thing about having a very young audience in the theatre is that sometimes they laugh at the bullying scenes. It’s really interesting, what that means. It still confuses me slightly, you know; someone’s getting quite brutally bullied on stage and people are laughing. I think it’s very hard being young.

How much did you have to take into account the age of your audience, when you were deciding how much violence and gore to include in the play?

We were never told what to do, we just had to tell the story. There was no “we need to take this out”, it was just about telling the story we wanted to tell. It was originally a stage show in Dundee, so there was no West End destiny for it, though that’s the way it’s turned out. But there was never any commercial pressure put on us.

Another thing about this adaptation is that it’s set in the 80s, right? Why make it a period piece rather than bring it up to date?

Well, when you bring something up to date you get into all sorts of trouble. The mobile phone thing is very interesting, in terms of what it does to horror, in particular. But the other reason is that it felt like it was a story about the 80s. The 80s felt like a time when people were getting to grips with what they wanted the world to be, it was more of a transitional time than we’re in now.

The stage design is really striking. How did it feel when you first saw it?

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I think it’s amazing. Christine Jones is the designer, and she’s amazing. That forest – in Dundee, it was still growing. None of the trees, obviously, are rooted, but the way that trees grow meant there was still stuff in them that was alive and they were technically still growing? We worked with the Scottish Forestry Commission, and they cut down specific trees – that they were felling anyway – for us.

Like, “I want some trees for a play, I’ll take that one”?

I think she literally did do that. They showed her the trees they were felling, and she went round and chose the trees she wanted.

Brilliant. The other thing that’s remarkable about the staging is the swimming pool scene, which is the thing in the films that stands out as the most difficult bit to translate to the stage. All the way through the play I was wondering I wondered if you’d changed the ending –was it important to keep that in, do you think?

You know what, I said to John, “why don’t I write this in the gym?” It would still have made total sense in the school gym rather than the swimming pool, but he said “no, I think we can make it work.”

So he and Christine and Steven went through several different incarnations of how the swimming pool could work before they came up with that. It’s brilliant, I think, but no, I was a total wimp about it. I would not have tried to do it.

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Let’s talk about the casting. Were you involved in casting Martin Quinn and Rebecca Benson? Were they what you’d imagined for your version of Oskar and Eli?

I was in the auditions when Martin first came in, and I’d never met Rebecca, but Rebecca had worked with Steven, so he knew she could do it. With Martin, he just came in to audition and the moment he walked in I was sitting with Justin [Martin, Resident Director] and I said, “I like that kid, the kid with the shoulders.” There was just something about the way Martin held himself that made me think, “oh, it’s Oskar.”

His shoulders have got bigger since then but he’s still got that sense about him. He’s great. And Rebecca’s amazing. Her performance is so great; she and John have made some bold decisions about how to play Eli and I think it’s incredible. We’re up to about 90 performances now and each one has got better and better and better.

The first time you see her, standing on top of the climbing frame, it’s so creepy.

Yeah, yeah. It’s amazing. And just the way that she drinks blood? She does something with her back. Those moments where she has to kill someone on stage, you know, she’s 5ft nothing, but the way she does it, the way she throws herself into it, I think it’s phenomenal.

Speaking of movement, there are dance sequences throughout. Was that something you wanted to include? What do you think those add?

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I think it makes it feel more like a fairy story. I think as a play, mood is very important. Your emotional response to it is very important, the audience has to feed the emotions of the play, and so I think you need that dance stuff to take you more inside their heads and their minds. You can’t do voiceover in the theatre; you can do direct address but that doesn’t feel right somehow. Dance allows you to understand Oskar a bit better, I think.

I didn’t write in dance sequences, but I wrote a play that was 70 pages long for two hours, so it had room for that in it. I know how John [Tiffany, Director] and Steven [Hoggett, Associate Director] work and the stuff that they do, and I always wanted space for that.

My favourite scene is Oskar and Eli post-sweetshop, when they’re running around with the bananas. Obviously I didn’t write a word of that but I love it. I look forward to it every time I see it.

How many times have you seen it?

Oh, lots. Lots and lots and lots.

So as we’ve already touched on, there are already two films of this book, and now a play, too. Why do you think people keep coming back to this story in one way or another?

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I think Lindqvist did something completely new with vampires. And I don’t quite know how you do that nowadays: we’ve have vampires for 150 years and you’d’ve thought every story about vampires had been told but he found a new way of doing new things with vampires. And it’s beautiful. I love genre and to do something new with that is hard and brilliant.

It is amazing. Have you read his other books?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Brilliant, isn’t he? And he’s a very interesting man, too. I got to hang out with him a bit and he’s very cool. And totally at ease with the fact that people have taken his story and done interesting things with it. I didn’t meet him until after we’d done the play, but I was full of questions.

Like the Oskar/Håkan thing, is Oskar going to grow up to be Håkan? Because in the book, he’s clearly not, but in the film, there’s a possibility. He said “well, I wrote the script for that film and I didn’t think the Oskar/ Håkan thing existed. I saw different cuts of it, and it wasn’t until I saw it with an audience that I thought, oh shit, people are going to think Oskar grows up to be Håkan!”

And yet he kind of likes it now; it’s not what he had in his head, but he kind of likes it. He’s written a sequel, and it wasn’t the sequel that John Tiffany and I had in our heads about what Eli was doing with Oskar – if Oskar is going to grow up to be Håkan, it was important to us that Eli doesn’t know that. Because then all Eli is doing is tricking someone else into being her helper, and it’s not an Eli that we could love, and it’s not an Eli that we think is on stage either.

So for us, Eli thinks this is the first time, this is the first time she’s ever felt like this. In the same way that when you fall in love with someone, even if you’ve fallen in love before, you think “I’ve never felt like this version of love before.” I think that’s how she feels with Oskar. She loves him, and whatever their future is, she’s going into it optimistic that they can find a way to be together in a way that she hasn’t had before.

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That’s even more depressing though, that she would go into it thinking that? When as an adult you know it probably won’t work out like that? Maybe I’m just old and miserable.

You don’t know that. Maybe they go up to the Highlands and she loves him from cradle to grave and she works out a way to live off different kinds of blood and they live a happy peaceful existence together. Or maybe she turns him into a vampire. There are many different ways this could work out. In the same way that when you start a relationship with someone, you go “I realise I’ve been a fuck-up before and I’ve screwed up things before, but I think this time I’ll do better.” And I think that’s how she feels.

Jack Thorne, thank you very much!

Let The Right One In is at the Apollo Theatre in London until 27 September 2014.

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