Oscar-winning writer Christopher Hampton is in talks to write a screenplay with French director Anne Fontaine about iconic feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Nelson Algren’s transatlantic affair.
The playwright and screenwriter, who has won Oscars for The Father (2021) and Dangerous Liaisons (1989) and was also nominated for Atonement (2008), revealed he was in the early stages of the project during a masterclass at the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra event on Monday.
“We had an initial discussion followed by a more detailed discussion a week ago. I really want to do it,” he told Deadline in an interview after the talk.
De Beauvoir and Algren met in Chicago in 1947 and immediately embarked on a passionate affair that endured for more than 20 years in spite of the complications of transatlantic travel and communication at the time.
Paris-based intellectual de Beauvoir was in the midst of completing her seminal 1949 feminist work The Second Sex and still committed to her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was her partner for 51 years until his death in 1980.
Algren is best known for his 1949 novel The Man With The Golden Arm which was bought to the big screen in 1955 by Otto Preminger, with Frank Sinatra in the lead role of a man trying to break his drug addiction, opposite Kim Novak.
Hampton previously worked with Coco Before Chanel director Fontaine on the 2013 film Adoration. The film is being developed by The Father lead producer Philippe Carcassonne, who is also Fontaine’s partner.
Hampton told Deadline that the feature will likely focus on the early years of their affair from 1948 to 1952.
“Her biography is a massive story,” he said. “It’s when their fame was rising she was writing The Second Sex and the political situation in France was pretty volatile at the time.”
He said the screenplay will draw on de Beauvoir’s 300 letters in English to Algren over the course of the relationship, which are gathered in the work, A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren.
“There’s a wealth of material. There’s a whole book of her letters but what I am trying to get hold of which is quite hard to see and I might not succeed are his letters to her,” said Hampton.
The writer revealed he would like the project to be multi-lingual.
“I very much want all the scenes in America to be in English and all the scenes in France to be in French. The language and their language difficulties formed part of the relationship and the reasons that the relationship finally broke down,” he said.
In other projects on the boil, Hampton said he was still holding out hopes for a big-screen version of his play White Chameleon, inspired by his childhood in the Egyptian city Alexandria in the early 1950s.
He revealed that Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy at Cairo-based Film Clinic had recently come on board the project and that the search was now on for finance and partners.
Hampton lived in the city from 1951 to 1956, due to his father’s job as a marine telecommunications engineer. The family fled in 1956 due to the Suez Crisis.
“I’d never written anything autobiographical before and when I came to do it, I just sat down and wrote down on a few pages all my most vivid memories of Alexandria and that was the basis of the play and the screenplay,” said the writer.
“It’s really about the relationship between the child, which was my experience, and the household servant, who was a very wise Libyan in his 50s. I learned a lot of life lessons from him and spent a lot of time with him when my parents were busy or out playing tennis, or whatever it would be.”
“There’s a natural dramatic end when my mother and I were evacuated due to the Suez Crisis. We were on the last boat.”
Hampton said he had previously tried to get the project off the ground in 2010, with UK producer John McGrath (who produced his directorial debut Carrington) and Egyptian director and producer Marwan Hamad.
“We were in Alexandria during Ramadan 2010 (April 12-May 13). I was thinking if I came during Ramadan I could shoot during the day, along the Corniche. I was there with my designer and editor and we were going around all the locations.”
The Arab Spring kicked off some six months later with Tunisia and Egypt leading the way, putting the project indefinitely on hold.
“It’s my dream project and I would love to do it before it’s too late,” said Hampton.
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