Hay fest becomes Mecca of filmed lit

Pols, entertainment bizzers appearing at book event

LONDON — The Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye is about the last place on Earth you would expect to see the likes of Al Gore and Graydon Carter shooting the breeze, but the annual Guardian Hay literary festival is fast becoming the little Brit event with the biggest pulling power.

Hay is now morphing into a mecca for heavyweight politicos, entertainment talent and bizzers looking for intellectual inspiration in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Last year, the fest moved to a larger, tented site in the nearby meadows — it was overwhelming the picturesque town of 1,300 — and the program has grown to fill the more spacious environment vacated by flocks of sheep.

Fittingly for what remains a lit fest first and foremost, the pains and pleasures of adapting books to the bigscreen was mulled at Hay’s expanding Close-Up film section (sponsored by Working Title and FilmFour, among others).

Hay is a place where talent come to share ideas, and while deals are rarely inked, futue collaborations are often plotted.

Screenwriters including Deborah Moggach (“Pride & Prejudice”), Andrew Davies (“Bridget Jones”) and Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Laundrette”) revealed their varying techniques, which varied from “going for a long drive in my Lexus with the audiotape of the book” (Davies) to not re-watching previous screen versions (Moggach).

But these master classes revealed less about the adaptation craft than the work-in-progress presentation of Josie Rourke’s experimental stage play “The Silence of the Sea.”

Rourke, writer Owen Sheers and hot young Brit thesps Hugh Dancy and Saffron Burrows arrived straight from a nearby rural hideaway where they had been brainstorming how to approach the complicated source material — Vercors’ WWII French Resistance novella, which features two silent lead characters. The Hay audience reveled in seeing the quartet pursue their sometimes haphazard artistic journey onstage.

“I leave challenged, with a sure thought of returning next year,” said Burrows, who stayed three days despite having only a one-hour commitment.

Overcoming artistic struggle is what Hay’s discerning attendees go for, so it was no surprise that the pre-U.K. premiere screening of Richard E. Grant’s directorial debut “Wah-Wah” also got a warm welcome. Grant’s semi-autobiographical pic about colonial life in 1960s Swaziland took Grant seven years to make and involved five producers.

“United 93” also screened to an appreciative but more muted response, in line with the sensitivity of the subject matter.

Validating the Kubrick quote that “the longest line is never outside the best restaurant” was Matthew Modine (“Full Metal Jacket”).

In Hay to tubthump for his “Full Metal Jacket Diary” tome and his work-in-progress environmental doc “1,000 Suns,” Modine delighted the small crowd who attended his talk by outlining incremental steps everyone can make to help the environment.

Was this really Private Joker telling us to use less toothpaste and not to repeatedly shampoo? It was, and Modine’s message chimed with Gore’s sellout talk the next day.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq were the hottest topics debated in the Hay tents. And the verdict from the pundits is that there is very little to be cheerful about.

Former Times editor Simon Jenkins described the lawfulness of invading Iraq as “highly debatable” and outlined what he termed the “devastating consequences of victory.”

Jenkins’ evaluation that partition is inevitable, despite the efforts of the West, was shared by the hard-hitting Channel 4 doc “Iraq: The Reckoning.” The voiceover provided by Peter Oborne, political editor of the Spectator, described Iraq as “the most dangerous country on Earth” and portrayed delivering a unified country as “mission impossible.”

Jenkins and Oborne’s depressing diagnosis about Iraq was echoed by Carter, who spoke of Americans’ “screw-up fatigue” with the Bush administration and lamented the fact that “we (the U.S.) are not the beacon of freedom we once were.”

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