Welcome to By The Book, where we compare the book with its visual adaptation. Are they faithful and delightful partners in storytelling or are the authors turning in their graves through these unholy versions of their work? Tune in to find out…
Brian Clough. One of the biggest names in the history of English football, his incredible career as a 1970s manager was immortalised in David Peace’s 2003 novel The Damned Utd. Three years later, Tom Hooper took the story to the silver screen as The Damned United (with the extra n, i, and e). Interweaving Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44 days as manager of Leeds United in 1974 with his rise to most (in)famous footballing name in the country between 1968 and 1973, it’s a biopic of individual proportions.
Word versus Image
David Peace’s novel employs what you might call an individual style. A mix of lyrical second person (“you”) and sharp, short-sentenced first (“I”), it’s unlike anything else you’ll read, and director Tom Hooper faced a hefty challenge in translating it to the screen. Luckily for Hooper, his directorial style is as individual as Peace’s prose. Employing lighting, composition, and a colour palette that’s by turns muted and primary-colour bright, Hooper captures the rhythm of the words on the page to almost supernaturally excellent effect. As he went on to do in much grander style with Les Misérables, Hooper doesn’t just direct but paints pictures with every shot, turning the masterpiece on the page into a masterpiece on screen. Peace has vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, and the use of italics; Hooper has deeply-saturated teals and reds, bright purples, the rule of thirds, and the golden spiral. There’s more than a little of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection in this story of a footballing icon.
Perhaps even more individual than the book is its subject. Brian Clough, often described as “the greatest manager England never had”, was more than a little outspoken; on taking over Leeds United he told them to throw away all of their previous medals as they’d only won them by cheating. A hard Middlesborough accent matched with distinctive mannerisms and a place in the national consciousness makes him a monumental challenge for any actor – but it’s OK, folks. Brian Clough is played by Michael Sheen.
Already an applauded character actor, with Kenneth Williams, David Frost, and four separate appearances as Tony Blair under his belt, Sheen doesn’t just embrace but attacks the challenge with gusto. His Clough is everything the world remembers him to be – spiky, arrogant, honest, funny – but Sheen turns what could have been a straight story of hubris into one of moral uncertainty and the power of passion. Just as the man himself was held with the ungrudging affection the English have for eccentricity, so Sheen imbues Clough with bags of likeability. It shouldn’t be easy, but for Sheen it is.
Stranger than fiction
As is often the case with real life, Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leeds United are a far more bizarre chain of events than fiction might dream up. From his initial decision to take on Leeds after years of scathing criticism through to… well, to events that I won’t spoil, both the book and the film beautifully balance the facts with the fictions. Whilst Peace dramatises moments that never make it to the screen (with a fair chunk of time spent on Clough’s 1963 career-ending injury as a young player), Hooper weaves in real footage of mud-soaked 1970s play and reimagines real Cloughie interviews, handpicking questions, answers, and physical mannerisms (watching them side by side is a great exercise in spot-the-difference). The period accuracy is tremendous throughout, from boxy sports cars to the rough football pitches, flares, and huge shirt collars, culminating in an immersive otherworld of 1970s nostalgia that inexorably pulls you in.
What would Brian Clough think?
Whilst it’s usually the book’s author who gets a section to themselves, today it seems far more appropriate to address the subject. The views of Clough’s family are clear: they denounced Peace’s novel on release in 2006, with his son Nigel (who was manager of his father’s old club, Derby County, and is now at Sheffield United) unable to finish reading it due to its dark psychological tone and focus on alcoholism. They took a similar approach to the film, declining to read the scripts they were sent, attend production meetings, or go to any screenings, even with Hooper’s decision to lighten it up into a nostalgia piece. Clough died in 2003 at the relatively young age of 69, and three years to the book’s publication and six years to the film’s release is no time at all to temper the pain and grief. However fantastic the film is and however much sympathy it provokes for its protagonist, the feelings of his family are a sad and unfortunate casualty.
But what about Cloughie himself? A man who courted the media as much as they courted him, it’s tempting to think that he’d revel in pissing the world off from beyond the grave – and perhaps from the chance to set some of his life’s great wrongs to right. Despite everything – his undeniable self-importance, jealousy, obsession, and stubborn ability to betray – he’s the clear protagonist of both novel and film, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone not falling a little bit in love with him. He was, and – in living on through Michael Sheen – is one of the greatest managers English football has ever known; The Damned United cements his place in history and, more importantly, brings his legacy to an entirely new generation. Cloughie would probably quite like that.
Hooper’s take on the life of Brian Clough and the novel that immortalised it is nothing less than an expert lesson on translating book to screen. Neither a step-by-step transposition nor a wild stretch of the imagination, it works with rather than against the man at its heart. There’s no doubt that Hooper’s artistic visual style and the space he gives to Sheen go a long, long way to making this film what it is; a tribute, a tirade, and a (sort of) truth. The Damned United is very blessed indeed.