Adapting the Unconscious: Christopher Hampton’s Screenplay of ‘A Dangerous Method’

For Academy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright Christopher Hampton, who adapted the script for A Dangerous Method from his play The Talking Cure, the figure of Sabina Spielrein represents over a decade’s worth of research and creative input. Although director David Cronenberg proposed this particular project to him after reading The Talking Cure, Hampton’s history with Spielrein’s fascinating (and long-hidden) story precedes even that play’s inception. With A Dangerous Method, Hampton has envisioned the engrossing relationship between Spielrein, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) for its largest audience yet, and he was kind enough to discuss with PopMatters the lengthy process that led to this mesmerizing final product.

Hampton’s first encounters with this subject matter were in the ’90s, when he began developing a more traditionally-biographical screenplay entitled Sabina. Were it to have been produced, Sabina would have focused explicitly on Spielrein, incorporating her life story beyond Jung and Freud, and eventually leading up to her persecution and death during Stalin’s regime over the Soviet Union.

The script never found its way to production, however, which Hampton notes was probably all for the best: “I realized I’d made a mistake,” he says regarding this initial draft. “The center of the story is Jung, not Sabina, and once that had filtered through to me, it made a huge amount of sense: he just is the pivotal character, and if you put him at the center, everything organizes itself around him much more easily.” The result of this revelation was The Talking Cure, first produced for the stage in 2002, a piece focused specifically on the thorny professional and personal debates between Spielrein, Jung, and Freud.

In order to craft such a work, Hampton had to engage in extensive research, combing through mountains of works both by and about Freud and Jung (who, Hampton is quick to point out, “is not an easy read by any means”), though even at this stage his principal investment lay in Spielrein. Thankfully, he was approaching his subject at exactly the right historical moment: “She [Sabina] was pretty unknown until the ’70s, when this cache of diaries and letters and so on was found in a suitcase in an attic in Geneva. And suddenly people became aware of her, and began to look into what else could be found out about her. So by the time I came on there was a certain amount known about Sabina Spielrein.” A narrative for screen or stage was thus certainly feasible, especially considering the bevy of new information perpetually rising to the surface in the wake of this initial discovery.

However, Hampton also notes that much of the specific interpersonal history that fuels the narrative A Dangerous Method was still murky: “It wasn’t known whether or not she had a sexual relationship with Jung, it wasn’t known how long her treatment had lasted with Jung, it wasn’t known what had happened to her in long stretches of her life after Switzerland.”

Hampton’s major research breakthrough came about through sheer luck, in a narrative that fits his subject matter perfectly. The story he relates to me is imbued with an irresistable Sherlock Holmesian mystique: “I went to the Burgholzi Mental Hospital in Zurich, just to have a look around, and found there was a little Jung museum on the top floor—very interesting, ill-attended, it’s not there anymore—and the curator was an older man who had worked as a hospital orderly at the time that Jung was at the hospital.

“I got into conversation with him about Jung, and he said to me, ‘Well, is there some particular patient you’re interested in?’ And I said yes, she was called Sabina Spielrein, and he said, ‘Do you know when she was admitted?’ I said yes, August 1904, and we went down to the basement where there was a huge archive. He went straight to the 1904 volume on the shelves, opened it and found Jung’s case notes, typewritten with his handwritten notes in the margin. He showed them to me, and let me photocopy them and take them away!”

Hampton laughs, but then quickly emphasizes the magnitude of this discovery. “It was all highly irregular, but nevertheless it opened the subject to me: it actually contained a number of things that no one had quite come across before in terms of how ill she was, how physically ill she was. Jung describes her worst tics, twitches, her inability to keep still.” This explicit link between Jung and Spielrein proved a necessary enabler, uncovering a new level of their relationship, further allowing Hampton to, as he puts it, “carve” a narrative from the resources he had accumulated.

While on the subject of research, distillation, and the crafting of A Dangerous Method‘s characters, Hampton is quick to mention Cronenberg, whose insight clearly impacted the story’s transition from stage to screen. He compares that process of translation to “taking a machete to a forest of material,” and praises the film’s director in this regard, claiming that “Cronenberg turned out to be better at that than I was, really. He was very, very precise and surgeon-like in what he felt should stay in the film and what he felt should go,” an assertion brought home when Hampton remarks that “the play is probably an hour longer than the film”.

Both screenwriter and director worked off the other in this process of filtration. Though he did not try to cater his screenplay to any “Cronenberg-ian” sensibility, Hampton does note that, “when we embarked on the work together, I could see what interested him, what he liked, what worked for him.” Clearly his director knew what film he wanted to direct: Hampton recalls one conversation “in which [Cronenberg] said, ‘Well, it’s a very interesting scene, but it’s actually not the sort of scene I do well…’ It was a disconcerting thing to hear, and really it was probably a brilliant way of saying, ‘please cut this scene!’”

I can’t help but ask if he did ultimately cut the scene in question. Hampton replies instantly, “I cut everything he asked me to cut!”

The medium of cinema itself seems to have also inspired Hampton’s process of translation: “Of course, there’s so much you don’t need to say in a movie because you can see it around you, as it were, so you can really concentrate, you can really distill it to the essentials.” As examples of the new possibilities a screen adaptation provides, he notes how A Dangerous Method “makes use of things like correspondence, and the landscapes of Zurich and Vienna”. He also praises Cronenberg’s bravery when it comes to incorporating historical material. “He was quite comfortable with having long dialogue scenes. In particular, the Freud-Jung relationship was full of quite long, intimate conversations,” conversations brought to unforgettable life by Fassbender and Mortensen without retaining any elements of “staginess”: the film retains a fluid, even buoyant pace as it incorporates the complex verbal barbs exchanged by its protagonists.

Hampton is probably best known to cinephiles for adapting Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Atonement (2008) into massively successful prestige pictures (he won his Oscar for the former, and was nominated again for the latter). A Dangerous Method marks an obvious departure from these works in that Hampton is adapting his own material, not someone else’s. “I remember having a conversation with Ian McEwan about this when I did Atonement,” he muses, “and we wound up saying to one another. “It’s easier to do damage to other people’s work than your own.”” Despite whatever challenges he faces with a given project, Hampton clearly finds something uniquely rewarding about the screenwriting process, as his extensive resume of screen adaptations spans four decades, and includes such titles as Carrington (1995), Mary Reilly (1996) and The Quiet American (2002).

I’m not surprised, then, to hear Hampton confess, near the end of our conversation, his own longstanding cinephilia. In discussing his childhood affinity for the movies, he even suggests a preference for screenwriting over playwriting, the medium by which he first made his name.

Christopher Hampton

“I was always more naturally drawn to film writing just because my father was very very keen on movies, so I saw an awful lot of them. I used to see two or three a week with him when I was a kid, and by contrast I’d hardly seen any plays at all. However, if you were a young English writer in the ’60s, there wasn’t really a film industry in Britain, whereas at that time theatre was certainly at the heart of things, so naturally you were steered toward writing plays.”

How fortunate, then, that Hampton did eventually find his way into the film industry. If his treatment of Spielrein, Jung and Freud in A Dangerous Method is any indication, he has an inherent gift for transposing even the densest, wordiest, most challenging material into something that lives beyond the page, something singular and arresting that lives and breathes cinema. Hampton’s words transform into unforgettable images into the language of movies.