“I think that’s the joy of fantasy: the unpredictability. If the rules of the world don’t apply, what a fun playground to play in. You want to do things that are really out there, because otherwise it’s just something in the real world.”
There is a moment in Kick-Ass – then only the second of Jane Goldman’s screenwriting ventures – when 11 year-old Hit-Girl says to the room, “Okay, you c**ts, let’s see what you can do now.”
Writing about a pre-pubescent female assassin who swears like a sailor and shoots like a marksman is a brave way to go about your second feature. But then, every choice that Jane Goldman has made in her screenwriting career could be labelled thus. Blockbusters like X-Men: First Class, The Woman in Black and Kingsman: The Secret Service don’t seem audacious choices on the surface; but then you consider Goldman stepped up from presenting a paranormal investigation series on Living to writing multi-million-dollar grossing movies, and the leap starts to look a little braver.
A freelance journalist at just 16, Goldman pottered about in the world of daily newspapers and showbiz correspondence for over a decade, building up a portfolio of non-fiction writing (and a novel thrown in for good measure). While the tabloids were focused on her hair and clothes, Goldman quietly went about establishing her reputation, something which the Daily Mail was unlikely to notice. But her talent must have been clear; after all, not every precocious teenager gets their start in a national newspaper.
It was a friend who suggested Goldman kick her writing up a gear. “Neil Gaiman had the film rights to his book Stardust bought… and suggested I adapt it for the screen,” she told Stylist in 2012, as though being personally asked to adapt a book by one of the most prolific and best-selling authors in the world is no big deal. A rambunctious fairytale about the parallel world of Stormhold, in which a fallen star might be personified and an ordinary boy can be a hero, Stardust became as much Goldman’s story as it was Gaiman’s. With her co-writer (and the film’s director) Matthew Vaughn, she adapted ten and a half hours of book into 122 minutes of film. While her subsequent features mark their adulthood in sex, swearing, and violence, Goldman held back for the PG-rated Stardust, and perhaps her best achievement is how mature it feels. This is a fairytale for grownups, a cream cupcake of a movie with a razor-sharp filling.
Here too is the ingredient which makes all of Goldman’s writing so successful: her affinity for what makes us human. Her movies come alive in the ties that bind, in the choices that people make, in the moments that spur them on. “[Matthew Vaughn] was much less comfortable with things like human relationships and love and all that kind of stuff,” Gaiman said of Stardust, “So I wanted to find somebody who really did have that, and that was Jane.” In amongst the superheroes, the spies, and the ghosts, Goldman weaves brotherhood, betrayal, bereavement. Her X-Men are tortured children in adult clothing; the Woman in Black is a mother who has lost her child. Her spy thriller The Debt makes Mossad agents and Nazi war criminals the simple spine to a story in which characters are the beating heart. In speaking about The Woman in Black, her first solo screenplay, Goldman responded to questions of structure with answers about characterisation: without establishing character first, “it is difficult to connect with what is frightening.”
Her aptitude for capturing life in unusual circumstances has made Goldman one of the most consistently successful screenwriters in Hollywood. Her screenplays have amassed a total of just over one billion dollars worldwide (not counting X-Men: Days of Future Past, for which she holds a story credit, or Kick-Ass 2, where she is credited as producer). Goldman is at the very top of the screenwriting game, sitting comfortably in the ten most bankable female screenwriters of all time. The company includes Amanda Silver and Lilly & Lana Wachowski. Even the late Nora Ephron trails behind Goldman in the numbers, where she has surpassed in 10 years what Ephron did in 20. Her willingness to pull out the innards of a book and find the film inside it has led steadily from project to project; the result is a body of genre work putting Goldman alongside writers like Christopher Nolan and Joss Whedon.
The one area in which Goldman remains to be tested is the original screenplay (though her adaptations might not feel such to readers, happy as she is to find the essence and cut up the narrative). That challenge awaits in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, for which the original source comic offers no further storyline. But finding the material is, Goldman says, “just another step in the process”.
Her latest big-bucks adaptation, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is a homecoming of sorts for someone who, as a 16 year-old journalist, was once their own kind of peculiar child. Pairing her talents with Tim Burton seems less like choice and more like inevitable evolution for such a skilled genre writer. It’s a sign of the times that Goldman’s script is what makes a Burton film seem worthwhile. But Miss Peregrine is not the only of her films out this year. The Limehouse Golem is a smaller independent production – proof that Goldman has pursued her writing career backwards, starting with blockbusters and scaling down – but in all other respects a successor to her earlier work. Adapting Peter Ackroyd’s novel set in 1880s London, Goldman is building on experience to produce a heady mix of period horror and genre thriller, all tied up in a package suitable for the Toronto Film Festival.
The gothic thread developing in her work has led Goldman to a childhood dream. “That was my fantasy book to adapt,” she says of Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier’s most famous novel. Goldman has been attached to a new adaptation since 2013. She’s in good company with director Nikolaj Arcel, whose Danish language drama A Royal Affair launched the international career of Alicia Vikander and grabbed an Oscar nomination in the process.
It might be argued that returning to adaptation is stunting writerly growth, but it’s clear that Goldman’s passion lies in finding the story inside the one that already exists. Her growth as a writer has never been measured in copyright, but in execution. What started out strong in Stardust has been steadily consolidated, until we find ourselves here, with a catalogue of clever blockbusters and subtle world domination at Goldman’s fingertips.