Literary adaptations: an interview with Niccolò Castelli and Rico Engesser

© module+ / Solothurner Filmtage
© module+ / Solothurner Filmtage

Solothurn Film Festival and Solothurn Literary Festival have launched a joint initiative promoting literary adaptations. Pro Helvetia is backing the joint initiative as part of its support for the literary scene and has discussed the project with Niccolò Castelli, Artistic Director Solothurn Film Festival and Rico Engesser, Co-Director Solothurn Literature Days.

Since 2019, Pro Helvetia has lent its support to the screen adaptation of literary works from Switzerland and facilitated Swiss publishers’ access to important international adaptation initiatives. A national level of support was added in 2023 in the form of industry events for the Swiss film and literary scenes at the Solothurn Film Festival and Solothurn Literary Festival. Now, the 2024 Solothurn Film Festival is adding a tried-and-tested format from international film festivals to its programme in the form of a literary adaptation pitching session. At ‘SO PRO’, five selected literary projects will be presented to representatives from established production companies. Those involved will have a chance to build on first impressions at a subsequent ‘speed dating’-style event. The goal is an option agreement for a film adaptation.

In the past few years, adaptation has become a major aspect of film markets at major international film festivals: Cannes with Shoot the Book!, Books at Berlinale or BARM in Venice, to name a few examples. Switzerland is already regularly involved in these initiatives. What’s special about what’s on offer at Solothurn Film Festival?

Niccolò Castelli. The general public are often unaware that one of the most important aspects of a festival is its ‘market’ – a key opportunity for professionals enabling them to discuss projects at various stages of development – like our new programme aimed at the industry, ‘SO PRO’. As a shop window for Swiss cinema and literature, Solothurn plays a key role in the country’s cultural fabric, including in professional terms: over the years, both festivals have become a must for those involved in the world of cinema and literature. It is therefore reasonable to believe that these festivals would be capable of creating the conditions for a productive dialogue between Swiss publishers and producers in a warm and welcoming environment.

Niccolo Castelli on his hopes for literary adaption

Why is it important for the Swiss film industry and the literary scene to come together?

Niccolò Castelli. Cinema thrives on stories. More than just ‘content’, literature can supply cinema with ideas, entire universes and stories full of meaning. In a globalised world, we would be wrong to underestimate the local roots of writing and style: every artist draws inspiration from their immediate environment. Facilitating dialogue between Swiss cinema and literature can therefore inspire the creation of stories situated in a place that is recognisable to people in Switzerland and equally appreciated abroad. This dialogue is also a source of mutual strength for both sectors in their relationship to audiences.

How important is the new collaboration with Solothurn Film Festival for you? What opportunities does it create?

Rico Engesser. It’s the first-ever collaboration between both festivals in Solothurn, and actually quite an obvious one. After all, both institutions focus on what’s going on across Switzerland and offer a showcase of what’s been going on in the past year. Both bring together their industry in Solothurn each year. Both institutions are rooted in their local area and help give Solothurn its sense of identity.

But the collaboration isn’t just a good sign for Solothurn – it creates a point of contact between the Swiss literary and film scenes, which have previously mostly known each other on a personal, private level. The professional connection helps publishing houses and authors take Swiss work further and sell film rights; this gives film producers access to material that is interesting, and above all, already developed.

Personally, I think it’s great for both institutions and the people behind them to get to know each other better and enter into a dialogue. This is an enriching aspect that goes beyond the project in question.

Why is literary adaptation in Switzerland at a relatively nascent stage compared to other countries?

Niccolò Castelli. Switzerland’s linguistic richness also creates barriers: a work published in Swiss-German or German will not immediately attract the attention of a French-speaking producer. Building bridges between linguistic regions and setting up opportunities for dialogue where cultural stakeholders who have never met can share their visions and projects is essential for encouraging literary adaptation. This exact outcome is one of the aims of the pitching session created by the two festivals, which, in addition to the networking opportunities on offer, specifically encourages the creation of literary adaptation projects through grant funding.

Swiss film director Séverine Cornamusaz on the adaptation process of her first film Cœur animal

How have Swiss publishers responded to the new initiative?

Rico Engesser. The feedback we’ve received has been nothing but positive. Selling film rights can be highly lucrative for publishers – and Switzerland in particular is lagging behind in this regard. Right now, small and medium-sized publishing houses often have few points of contact with the film industry. Film rights and pitches are new territory – we were aware of this from the outset. So at the 2023 Literary Festival, we started with the basics: how does a literary text become a film? What are the structures of production? How much does it cost?

What kind of potential for adaptation do you see on the Swiss literary scene?

Rico Engesser. The success of Der Goalie bin ig (2014) from Pedro Lenz, Thomas Meyer’s Wolkenbruchs wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse (2018), or Coeur Animal, based on Noëlle Revaz’s novel Rapport des bêtes, winner of the 2010 Swiss Film Prize, offer a glimpse of the potential Swiss literary adaptations could offer. A literary adaptation takes around half the time to produce compared to a new project in development, which is certainly appealing in landscapes for film production like Switzerland’s. Now, in particular, the ‘Yes’ vote on the 2022 Film Act and additional financial resources may mean more content and material is required for filmmaking. I’m absolutely certain that there’s huge potential for adaptations. In fact, the question is how film producers can get access to this literary material.

What role did literary adaptation play in the Solothurn Film Festival programme before now

 Niccolò Castelli. Literary adaptations made sporadic appearances on the festival programme. This year in particular, there was Jenna Hasse’s début feature ‘L’amour du monde’ (or ‘Longing for the World’), based on the novel by Ramuz, and ‘Jakobs Ross’, an adaptation of Silvia Tschui’s novel of the same name by Katalin Gödrös. It’s also worth stressing that the history of Swiss cinema is inextricably linked with dialogues between the literary and cinema scenes: authors such as Dürrenmatt, Hesse and Patricia Highsmith made a lasting impact on cinema with their life and work. So far, these movements have only been the subject of sporadic study. Let’s hope that the festivals’ project will allow us to analyse these exchanges in depth. In any case, I’m convinced that the dialogue between these two sectors has some wonderful surprises in store for us.

What were the criteria for the material chosen for the first pitching session?

Rico Engesser. We allowed fiction texts in one of the four official national languages, created by authors who are Swiss or based in Switzerland. Everything from children’s books to crime fiction. It was important to us that current new releases were involved in the pitching session, as we hoped this would enhance the appeal for film producers. That meant we only allowed submissions due for publication in autumn 2023 or later. The projects submitted were then judged by an interdisciplinary selection committee consisting of three people: a literary scholar, a producer and a director. In addition to relevance and potential for film adaptation, the quality and originality of the stories and characters and feasibility for the Swiss film industry played a role in their considerations.

What do you expect from the first edition?

Niccolò Castelli. Of course, we hope to see adaptation projects taking shape as a result of this first edition of the event. Patience, however, is key. The initial results of these dialogues will appear in a few years: it takes more than just a few months to write and direct a film. The fact remains that the conversations that will take place at the Solothurn festivals are essential to ensure these kinds of projects see the light of day.