Hazel McHaffie

Feeling the pain

I must confess I’m not much of a cinema goer (best not to ask – it’s a long story) but I have just been to see The King’s Speech. And it really is as good as it’s cracked up to be. It conveys powerfully the struggles of the shy Duke of York, ‘Bertie’, who’s already sagging under the sheer weight of emotional baggage created by a bullying father and a crippling speech impediment. And then his brother ‘selfishly’ abdicates … and Bertie is precipitated into the role of King George VI … and required to rally a stunned nation … to make speeches … to the world …?

Of course, the scriptwriter has draped the bones of historical fact with clothes of his own tailoring. Plenty of artistic license, I don’t doubt. Nevertheless the whole package has a credible and authentic feel to it. And the acting is superb. As you’ll have seen, the cast have been nominated for a whole raft of Oscars – deservedly so.

Now, maybe you’re more film-hardy than me, but watching good actors doing what they do so well, I’m in awe of their skill. They speak of ‘inhabiting a part’, of ‘being in character’, and accolades are given for doing just that. It’s the art and craft of their profession. For a time we onlookers suspend disbelief; they convince us their words, their actions, their thoughts, their feelings, are the genuine article.

What we hear less often mentioned is the impact on the actors themselves of this ‘inhabiting’.

Did you know, for example, that Javier Bardem, Spain’s first Oscar-winning actor, became so immersed in his role as a single father struggling to come to terms with his fatal cancer in Biutiful, that he found it took over his life? He started trying to set his real affairs in order in a rather manic way, contacting old friends, healing rifts. People who know him apparently started to get concerned.

Nicole Kidman, playing the part of a bereaved mother whose young son was killed in Rabbit Hole, began waking in the night sobbing and overwrought. I can believe that – must be harrowing to really feel the devastation of such a loss sufficiently to convey it so movingly.

And Colin Firth, engrossed in perfecting King George’s stammer in The King’s Speech, struggled at times to articulate words outside of the role. Not too clever a state to be reduced to if you act for a living, I guess!

They really do get inside the skin of their characters. And something of the same kind of experience is shared by authors. Well, by me anyway, and I doubt very much I’m alone in this. Our characters become more real to us than flesh and blood friends.

Right to DieI felt utterly drained after spending months experiencing Adam’s emotions as he died slowly from Motor Neurone Disease in Right to Die.

Double TroubleIt took me weeks to recover from the brutal death of Donella in Double Trouble. She was one of my favourites. I so much wanted the story to have a different ending, but what happened happened without my say-so.

paternity1Bethany’s struggle for life reduced me to tears every time I read that chapter in Paternity.

It gives me a real thrill when readers tell me they too have been so intimately engaged with, so profoundly moved by, something I’ve written, that the edges between reality and fiction have been blurred.
‘I found myself looking round for my wheelchair.’
‘I had to go and check on my own children.’
‘I felt confused and disorientated myself – I actually did a little test to make sure dementia wasn’t setting in.’

Of course, there’s a downside too. Some people dare not expose themselves to raw emotion at this level. They won’t even open the covers. I have to accept that reality.

It’s impossible to please all the people all the time, after all; no point in trying. But I do have to try to be true to myself. And that means sticking with this genre. Because this is my raison d’être – why I moved into fiction writing in the first place. I want to give a voice to those people whose lives are dominated by the dilemmas and challenges of twenty-first century medicine, who so often struggle unseen and unsupported. I want people to listen to them; to feel their anger, their anguish; to care.

Starting with me.

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