I’m sure you’ve met those annoying, smug people who can’t resist saying “the book’s better”, when you mention novels’ movie adaptations. Now I have to make a confession. Nine times out of ten, that awful person is me. If you’re exactly the same, I’d recommend picking up How to Stop Time by Matt Haig.
The story is excellent, and rumour says it will be turned into an almost-as-good-as-the-book film by Benedict Cumberbatch as soon as that talented actor has finished making, well, virtually everything else appearing in cinemas.
This novel is enough to make any film producer salivate. It covers some of history’s most famous moments, including Shakespeare’s performances and the jazz-filled roaring twenties. The protagonist, Tom Hazard, has lived through four centuries of plague, witch hunts, war and (best of all) the invention of the Bloody Mary cocktail.
A likeable enough man who claims to be 41, Tom has an unusual condition. He and a small number of others have a rare disorder that means they age at a slower than normal rate. They call themselves after the long-lived albatross and survive for nine hundred years or more while ‘mayflies’ (their name for normal humans) blink in and out of life.
In the modern day, Tom works as a history teacher in a London school. His students have no idea he’s centuries old or that the anecdotes he shares are from his memories, not a textbook. Out of the classroom, he still mourns his long dead wife and searches for their lost and equally long-lived daughter, Marion.
Love and all that jazz
This novel ticks so many boxes; historical high jinks, jazz age cocktails, romance and fantasy. There’s even a secret organisation, in the form of the ethically dubious Albatross Society. I enjoyed the format, which skips between different historical periods, teasing out new strands of Tom’s life. We get some interesting glimpses into seventeenth century attitudes and the way people did (and still do) view people who are ‘different’ with hostility.
Matt Haigh uses this novel to make a few important points. One of my favourites is the question, what do we live for? The first rule of the Albatross Society (sadly it isn’t ‘don’t talk about Albatross Society’) is to never fall in love. Long-lived humans are encouraged to avoid relationships with ‘mayflies’, in case their lifespan is revealed. But, as Matt Haigh shows, it’s love and bonds with other people that help to make the world such a wonderful place to live.
Verdict: This is a fun read with a satisfying ending. I’m excited to see how a film develops. I can imagine the switch over may be tricky as, historical set pieces aside, it’s Tom Hazard’s internal musings that give us such a good grasp of his character. But, if anyone’s able to convey this, I’m sure it will be the hard-working Benedict Cumberbatch.
One small gripe would be the number of famous people Tom runs into on his travels. Historical fantasy often drags well known people into the plot to give readers a point of reference.
I love Matt Haigh’s characterisation of Shakespeare, and the very natural way in which he meets Tom, but can’t help thinking that the likelihood of our protagonist knowing him would be slim. The same is true of the other famous people Tom runs into but, this is a fantasy novel so perhaps I shouldn’t complain about fantastical circumstances!
If you can think of movies adaptations that outshine the books they’re based on please drop me a comment below. I’ll add them to my ‘to be watched’ list!