Books To Be Scene: Elizabeth Wein's CODE NAME VERITY
"The air-raid siren went. Every head in the room looked up in dismay and exhaustion at the canteen's pasteboard ceiling, as if they could see through it. Then everybody rocketed from their borrowed church hall wooden folding chairs to meet the next battle.
Maddie stood facing her new friend by the table they had just abandoned, people around her whirling into action. She felt as though she were at the eye of a tropical storm. The still point of the turning world.Hey. Hey! You've been going dark and edgy for the past couple of months with this column. How about something cheerful? Like a romantic comedy?
It's like being in love, discovering your best friend."
You think? Hmmm... I've got a meet-cute?
You don't sound too sure of yourself.
Okay, okay, it would be a bit of a stretch to call World War II a "meet-cute"... but it was pretty big on throwing people together who'd ordinarily never have met. Maybe not to the extent the Great War rewrote societal codes and strictures - you could argue that one for a while - but a lot of friendships got started that way that'd otherwise have withered on the vine. Filmmakers have been a fan of this sort of thing for a while - from the black-and-white classic La Grande Illusion to superstar bromances like the Korean blockbuster My Way. Thing is, they tend to lack the feminine touch; if a lady gets involved in the military she's either a Katherine Bigelow fan or trying to keep up in a man's world, baby. Yeah.
The feminine touch? Like what? Kittens and pink fatigues?
Not... exactly. Some background for you: the Air Transport Auxiliary was a civilian organisation created by the British army during the Second World War which served as a useful way around the pesky reality that some members of the gentler sex persisted in being good at men's jobs even when they were obviously going to faint the moment they got within sniffing distance of actual combat - I mean, imagine. ATA pilots ferried aircraft and personnel around the UK to where they were most needed, allowing the military to pretend these weren't real soldiers (they weren't allowed to fly over the English Channel to where there was actual fighting), and to acknowledge that if women wanted to be greasemonkeys so badly their strange urges could be put to good use without offending common decency. (Never mind service in the ATA was as dangerous as the regular air force, or even more so.)
I get the feeling you're not being entirely serious here.
You think? Still, easy sarcasm aside, imagine Maddie, a Manchester lass from a working-class background in Stockport in the 1930s, obsessed with machinery (motorbikes in particular) despite the contempt it earns her from men her age. Imagine that quite by chance, she helps to rescue an actual lady aviator (a girl! Flying an aeromaplane!) who's crashed into a field. Imagine Maddie takes to hanging around the same aerodrome as the grateful pilot and that when the Civil Air Guard is started up in 1938 the mechanics she's been helping out recommend she be taken on like that. From this point it's a short hop to the ATA, where one of Maddie's first operations has her working alongside Queenie, an aristocratic young Scots lady of quality whose fluency in German and resourceful intellect sees her mixed up in some very cloak-and-dagger work indeed. This is Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity.
So this is a spy novel? A nostalgia piece? An adventure?
All of the above and more, to be honest. Code Name Verity jumps repeatedly between the two women's stories, slipping back and forth from the time Maddie discovered her calling, to the point the two girls met, to the time one ends up marooned in occupied France, a prisoner of the Germans, with the other chewing her fingers off with worry back in Blighty... it's a coming-of-age story, a period piece, a stomach-churning thriller and hey, even a (platonic) love story, of sorts. (Plus it's bloody funny, in places. There, romantic comedy.) And despite being ostensibly pitched as a young adult novel it's both a sharply written, pacy adventure and a tough read in places. Some of the most significant violence is implied, but not all, and even when the nastiness is off stage it's blatantly obvious there's some sickening stuff just out of sight - these Nazis do not mess about.
It's not like there's a shortage of World War II novels out there -
No, but it's the depth that marks Code Name Verity out as something truly special. It is a fantastically nuanced book, even more so by the standards of young adult fiction (even my favourites in the genre frequently lay it on very thick). No heavy-handed theatrical metaphors here, no over-ambitious literary word games - merely a strong sense that everything's open to question, and no-one is wholly bad, whatever inhuman things they've been up to. Wein loves her role reversals; not necessarily twists per se but where multiple characters start out in one role then progress to quite another, including one so monumental that if it doesn't briefly leave you unable to breathe you have got to be dead from the neck up.
But smart-ass twists and turns aren't always cinematic...
Ah, but these plot beats aren't rooted in clever-clever use of language, or otherwise dependent on being seen in print; they're simply awesome writing. With the right cast they'd work every bit as well on screen as they do on the page. Which might sound like stating the bloody obvious but plenty of exemplary novels hinge on narrative devices that flat out don't translate between media, whereas in Code Name Verity you've got that potential Oscar-winning part, like, right there. There's a sense of vitality and self-possession to the book and a businesslike economy that makes even the most innocuous passages absolutely speed along. Never mind books that "sing"; as lively storytelling goes this one is a full-throated chorale.
You say singing, but there's verse-chorus-verse and there's going on forever -
Economical, remember? Wein's writing really doesn't tend to wax that lyrical, and when she does try painting pictures these bits are more descriptive than covertly drawing parallels with something-or-other. Understand that this means adapting Code Name Verity for the screen could be anyone's game. An actor's director would be best - no young Turks fresh off CG demo reels or ads for high-end sports cars and fragrances for rich 20-something professionals, you'd want someone who could ease their principal cast into the lead roles and get them to play off each other rather than each trying to steal every scene. Do it right and this would be one of those cinematic partnerships people would still be talking about a long time after awards season was over. (At the very least you'd have a British take on emotional war stories like, say, the Danish blockbusters Flame and Citron or Hvidsten Gruppen.)
But it is fun, right? Not just deep and meaningful?
Sure. Wein's book is quiet, and subtle, and not in the least pretentious but at the same time it has the kind of craft about it that practically demands you keep reading. It's simple, rousing yet devastatingly emotive entertainment that belies its genre tags, and that kind of nigh-on perfect clarity where everything acts in service of the story is still a comparative rarity in the cinema. To say nothing of that story being a lasting friendship between two women, a partnership that gets things done, in a historical arena where most movies would have us believe men had all the fun. It's not any big set pieces or attempts at bold, meaningful symbolism that convince you Code Name Verity could make an astonishing movie - it's simply a grand adventure from a truly great writer, one that begs for the chance to show what little competition there is how such a thing ought to be done.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, published by Electric Monkey is available on Amazon now.
(Images taken from the UK and US covers of Code Name Verity, plus archive photo of Air Transport Auxiliary female pilots.)
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