ONDON -- WIT,"
the Pulitzer Prize- winning play about a professor of 17th-century
metaphysical poetry who is dying of ovarian cancer, is by no stretch
a comedy. But it was the humor in Margaret Edson's writing — subtle,
dry, turning on a word or a phrase — that struck everyone involved
in adapting "Wit" for television.
"Maggie Edson's play is wonderfully written and so smart and
layered," said the producer, Cary Brokaw. "In the adaptation, we
were in full agreement that we wanted to mine every bit of humor we
possibly could. While the subject is inevitably that of a woman
dying of cancer, this is a woman who appreciates humor and wit to
her last breath. It's at once a story of a woman dying, but also
coming to terms with what it means to live."
In casting the lead, Colin Callender, the president of films at
HBO (where "Wit" will have its premiere on Saturday night), turned
to Emma Thompson, who has that seemingly indigenous British ability
to register irony through the slightest sideways glance, the
subtlest twitch of her lips, the merest inflection. That, at 41, she
is younger than Dr. Vivian Bearing, the English professor who is the
protagonist of "Wit" and who is meant to be 50, was not an
"I thought it was important that the actress was old enough to
feel that she'd experienced life and that there were opportunities
she might have missed, things she could have done differently, but
whether she was in her 40's or 50's or 60's didn't matter," Mr.
Why didn't he cast Kathleen Chalfant, who played Vivian when the
play opened in New York in 1998, or Judith Light, her successor in
Partly, it was a nondecision: in order to go ahead with the
project, it was necessary to secure a star of Ms. Thompson's
stature. Beyond that, the filmmakers said, they were eager to make a
film that would stand on its own.
"If we had cast Kathleen Chalfant or Judith Light, it would have
felt like filming the play," Mr. Brokaw said. "But we made a
conscious decision to not do that, but to give it new life as a film
while capturing all the qualities of the play we so admired and
In any case, Ms. Thompson immediately agreed, and almost as
quickly enlisted the director Mike Nichols, who had directed her in
the film "Primary Colors." The two then turned to a common friend,
the playwright Harold Pinter, to play the small but crucial role of
Vivian's father, who appears in a poignant flashback in the middle
of the film, introducing a 5-year-old Vivian to a lifetime of
sometimes overly pedantic scholarship by telling her what
The film was Ms. Thompson's first project since she gave birth to
her first child, a daughter, Gaia, with her companion, the actor
Greg Wise. She and Mr. Nichols began rehearsals some months before
filming began, debating endlessly how to portray the highly
intelligent, sometimes infuriating, but ultimately deeply human
It was the challenge of interpreting such a character that drew
Ms. Thompson to the part, she said in an interview in her office,
across the street from her handsome townhouse in south
She found the material highly appealing. Thanks to her classical
British education and Cambridge degree, she was already familiar
with the John Donne poems at the heart of the work, particularly
Holy Sonnet Six — "Death be not proud" — which takes on a deeper
meaning for Vivian as her own death approaches. In her final
moments, she is visited in the hospital by her old mentor, a
formidable Donne scholar played by the British actress Eileen
Atkins, giving rise to a scene in which the two turn Donne aside in
favor of something much simpler.
"One of the joys is to watch how Emma and Eileen Atkins bring
John Donne to life so it adds a whole new emotional layer to the
movie," Mr. Callender said. "In their confident hands, it allows you
to understand how the poetry relates to her life, even if you are
not familiar with it."
The film begins with Ms. Thompson lying in bed, bald and
vulnerable in the thick of her cancer treatment, explaining wryly to
the camera how she got to this point. Because the film is set
entirely in the hospital, except for a few important flashbacks that
help fill in Vivian's past and explain her present, Mr. Nichols and
Ms. Thompson agreed that it was crucial to the film's success to get
the pitch of this first scene just right.
"We took a long time to try and find the tone of that first scene
to camera, to try to get where we wanted," she said. "We talked and
talked and talked, and took our time, and we shot it twice — at the
beginning and at the end. And it changed. The point about this film
is that it's a question of very subtle brush strokes."
Adapting the play enabled Mr. Nichols to give the material an
intimacy — the viewer can easily imagine herself sitting beside Ms.
Thompson's hospital bed — that wasn't possible on stage. "The play
was brilliantly done and technically very difficult, and the
material lent itself particularly well to being a film," Mr. Nichols
said by telephone from New York. "The script is very interior. There
are lots of places to go, both in the head and in the past and in
Ms. Thompson agreed. "The script is interpretable in lots of
different ways, and on stage I'd have had to play it completely
differently," she said. "On stage, you don't have the advantages of
film: you don't have close-ups; you can't whisper and go very
LIKE the actresses who performed the part on stage, she decided
to shave her head rather than wear a bald wig. "I have no attachment
to my hair whatsoever," she said. "I've always had to have so much
done to it — it's been dyed and crimped and permed and cut off and
things have been added to it, and it's just part of the job." She is
now wearing her hair in a one-inch buzz-cut. "I like having no
hair," she said.
She also put self-consciousness to one side for the scene in
which several medical students prod her stomach as part of a lesson
about the side effects of cancer. ("Vanity?" she said. "Well, you
are being paid.")
Ms. Thompson has known many cancer victims, including, in a cruel
twist, a friend who died of ovarian cancer as "Wit" was being
filmed. And she said she can understand Vivian's strong inclination
to die alone, without help — even if much of her intellectually
rigorous solitude seems to fall away by the end of the film.
"She's learned a lot about compassion, and a lot about herself,
and a lot about her ability to deal with people who aren't as clever
as she is," Ms. Thompson said. "She's learned, as she says, that
just being clever isn't enough. That remorse is clearly felt, but
she can't find a word for it. It is regret."
Sarah Lyall is a reporter in the London bureau of The New York