One Day by David Nicholls: Book and Film

I sped-read One Day in two days (I wish I could say it was one day to tie things in nicely, but I’ve just not got the time/concentration span to read a book in a day!), because I had made plans to see the film and I didn’t want to go in blind. I’ve been sniffy about One Day ever since it came out; if everyone is reading a book, I automatically don’t want to join them, and you couldn’t get a book more ubiquitous than this. Everyone’s reading it everywhere you go; on the subway, on the bus, in the work cafeteria, at their book club; it’s been in my face constantly for the past year or so. Such a snob am I that I even borrowed my friend’s Kindle to read the copy she had downloaded rather than get the paperback and publicly declare myself as another David Nicholls groupie! Incidentally, I very much enjoyed reading the book on the Kindle and it has made me reassess my reasons for not investing in one. It would certainly ease up my lower back pain from carting around a huge book everywhere I go, that’s for sure!

As usual, I digress. Much to my surprise, I was hooked on One Day from page one. It is addictive reading, I have to admit. Emma and Dex are the two protagonists who meet one July 15th while at university in Edinburgh and then get revisited every July 15th for the next 20 years, charting the ups and downs of their individual lives and their relationship with each other. They are both very real and their stories are incredibly emotionally engaging. They struggle through their twenties; Emma jumps from one dead end job to another and flounders in a relationship with a perfectly nice boy she can’t love, whereas Dex quickly finds phenomenal success in the media world, but personal tragedy and substance abuse cause his life to be far from the fairytale it appears.  As they grow up, move into their thirties, and begin to work their way through the various rites of passage of adulthood, their friendship remains a source of comfort and joy for them both. However, the shaky romances of both Emma and Dex do constantly beg the question of whether they are both avoiding the inevitable, and as time marches on and their lives do not work out as they had hoped and dreamed, Emma and Dex increasingly find solace in one another.

In many ways the plot is horrendously predictable and there is very little subtlety about many of the big life changing events; I could see them signposted pages before they were announced. However, it’s also a very daring plot in that it is totally realistic and not in any way romantic about life; to use a rather crude phrase, shit happens, and it happens in spades for both Dex and Emma, who weather much disappointment, heartache, grief and loneliness in their individual pursuits of happiness. Nicholl’s observations on the difficulties of forging a competent, fulfilling adult life in the face of constant competition and envy of your peer group’s success; of finding someone to love and be loved by; of finding a purpose and a vocation and of coping with the myriad of difficulties and decisions that life hits you with that you are never taught how to cope with, are true and touching. Life is difficult and confusing and without realising it, we waste a lot of it; it takes us too long now to grow up, to stop believing in fantasies, to recognise the good that is in our lives and appreciate what it is that truly makes us happy. Wrapped up in the pursuit of career success and high ideals, Emma and Dex waste much of their youth, and this sense of missed opportunities and regret is what gives the book its poignancy.

The quality of the writing is nothing special, but it’s not trying to be. It’s not award winning material and it’s never going to be a modern classic, but when it comes to accurately portraying the often harsh realities of life, it’s absolutely spot on. I cried and cried and cried and I also burst out laughing plenty of times. As much as I hate to say it, the quality of the prose wasn’t really that important to me as I read it; it emotionally engaged me, it entertained me and it kept me glued to its pages. What more could I ask for? Nicholls effortlessly made me care about Emma and Dex and desperately want them to find their happiness. Their lives obsessed me while I was reading the book; I couldn’t stop thinking about them and being nervous about what would come next. I felt dirty when I put it down, but the good kind of dirty, like after eating McDonald’s. It was a naughty, indulgent treat, and I loved every minute of it. I hate to say it, but it’s definitely worth a read if you’re looking for a non demanding reading experience with a cracking good story.

The film, on the other hand, was appalling. Anne Hathaway, while playing Emma very well, has no clue where she’s supposed to be from, and her accent was highly distracting. One minute she was American, the next an Upper Class British aristocrat, the next Australian, and then the odd word would crop up in a comedy Yarkshur accent. Frankly, it was embarrassing. Jim Sturgess does Dexter very well and I thought Rafe Spall was excellent as Ian, but despite the good acting, it just didn’t work well as a film. The structure was choppy, the character development thin and the relationship between Emma and Dex totally lacked emotional depth. Without the detailed knowledge of their personalities and lives that you get from the book, the film would leave you confused and cold; they focus too much on cramming in events without getting at the heart behind them. The air of melancholy and regret that hangs over the book just wasn’t transferred onto the screen, and as such, the emotional impact of the novel evaporated. It was a bit of a wasted opportunity, really, and I was more than a little disappointed. Stick to the book!

45 comments

  1. I’m glad you liked the book! I really enjoyed reading it last year, as did my best friend, but we were both dreading the movie. Which is of course why we went opening weekend. I think I was actually expecting something far, far worse. The movie is not good, certainly, but neither is it completely awful (mostly because of competent work by Jim Sturgess and Rafe Spall). Mostly, I think, it’s just forgettable and disappointing. But I’m really not sure how such a book could have ever been transferred effectively onto film (though casting an appropriate Emma would have been a good start!).

    1. Thanks Claire. Yes, it’s not an awful film, but it is totally mediocre and just doesn’t translate the book onto the screen well at all. Taken as a stand alone, even, it’s just not a good film. There isn’t enough character development for that. Personally I think Romola Garai would have made a better Emma – she was wasted as Sylvie.

  2. Great to read a book & film review together. I raced through it in One Day but am now finding it hard to quite remember what happened. I shall still see the film but go with no expectations.

    1. Yes – it’s a quick read but not one that massively stays with you afterwards unfortunately! Go expecting to be disappointed and then you might be pleasantly surprised with what you find. I hope so!

  3. Too bad about the movie! Why, oh why doesn’t someone say something when an actor’s accent changes so dramatically during filming? Nip it in the bud! Well, should I have a craving for popcorn and it rains all weekend I may end up giving it a go. But I’ll start constructing a paper bag book jacket immediately!

    1. I KNOW! I kept wondering why no one had picked up on it during filming. Poor Anne Hathaway. By all accounts, she did try very hard. Hahahaha the paper bag book jacket is a must!!

  4. Stick to the book – very good advice. It’s rare to find a film that lives up to a good book. I usually avoid having my own pictures replaced by filmed ones.

    There was a play along these lines many moons ago which also was made into a film (although I can’t provide any details). The protagonists met once a year, were in love but, bizarrely, didn’t get together for life. I don’t think I could do that. You love and commit or you miss out. Very romantic though!

    1. The film you’re thinking of is “Same Time, Next Year,” starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda. Wonderful. Ellen did the stage version as well.

    2. Me too. The version in your head is always the best one anyway!

      It’s funny how people can be meant for each other but just never work things out…I’m going to track down that film, thanks to Leticia remembering the name! Thanks Chrissy for bringing it to my attention!

  5. Thanks for the warning about the movie/film. I shall now be able to save $10 on the ticket i won’t be buying.🙂 I did really enjoy the book, although I am older than the lead characters. However, I could relate to the the obstacles Em and Dex have to cross and how their lives pan out. I do think that David Nicholls has done that very well.

    BTW, David Nicholls has a good website and will answer email if you send him one. Well, he did mine. Very nice.

    Liz

    1. Yes, save that $10! I think that’s what has made the book so universally popular – everyone can relate to the characters to some degree.

      That’s good to know! I think he’s probably a very nice man. Just not very good at writing screenplays unfortunately!

  6. Like you I avoided this book because it seemed to be in everyone’s face all the time – where ever you turned. I did read it like you on my kindle and was absorbed and read it in a couple of days – okay I could see what all the fuss was about and I wish perhaps I had read it when everyone was talking about it but I like to break away from the sheep! I digress, I found the book engaging that having seen clips from the film part of me really wants to go and see it and another part does not. Having read your review I am now in the not go and see it camp and will stick to the book.

    There are some other books coming out on the ‘big screen’ that I do want to go and see so I think I might stick to them. This on the other hand will be when it comes on television then I might catch it.

    1. I think sticking to the book is best, Jo, at least until it comes out on DVD. I wouldn’t pay to see it. I’m glad to find another reluctant book snob too! The girl next to me on my train this morning was reading it and I felt very justified in hiding my guilty pleasure read behind the leather flaps of a Kindle!

  7. I loved the book too, and I was excited for the film (given Nicholls adapted it himself and Lone Sherfig directed it (I adored An Education), but after I saw the trailer, I was a bit hesitant. I’ll still see it, but I was even more perplexed after having the chance to interview Nicholls and he said they made the choice to focus on four years and have the rest as smaller snippets. I feared it wouldn’t translate well, and it seems you’ve confirmed that.

    1. Yes, what I can’t understand is that it is SO terrible and untrue to the book and yet David Nicholls himself did the screenplay. The format doesn’t lend itself well to the big screen at all. A TV mini series would have been much better.

  8. Yikes, her accent is terrible! Might have to skip this film but read the book. I’m one of those people who really can’t focus on anything if something like that annoys me. Of all the amazing British actresses out there now, why oh why pick an American?

    -an American

    1. It IS truly horrific!! I know – it annoys me no end when British films have American actresses as the lead – usually just to boost sales as the Brits tend to be less well known. It’s normally ok if they are just called upon to do an RP accent – Renee Zellweger did a fine job in Bridget Jones and Gwyneth Paltrow can do a good general British accent too, but as soon as you go to a regional accent, you really do need a native. I think this film will be a lesson learned for all in the industry – hire British please or just don’t bother!

  9. Not a complete “book snob” after all then! I enjoyed it too, for much the same reasons as you. I did find Dexter an irritating prat but there’s probably a large element of jealousy in that. I’ve always struggled to understand why – in my biased and completely subjective opinion – some awful examples of the male species nevertheless seem to have had little difficulty finding partners.

    Moving swiftly on … Everyone who tries one of those “Kindle” things seems to end up a convert, thinking that at the very least they might be useful on the move. I hope I can continue to hold out. I’m never comfortable when one company becomes overly dominant in a particular market, like Apple did with mobile music, and it’s already beginning to look like Amazon have the ebook market sewn-up – as if they were not powerful enough already.

    1. I try not to be David!! I can branch out sometimes! Well, I hate to say it, but us women love a bad boy! They’re rarely the ones who get properly settled down with though.

      Well I do agree with you there. I think they are handy for commuters but to be honest I doubt I will ever buy one just on principle that I hate the gradual digitisation of life. Give me physical objects any day. I want to be able to see on a shelf what I’ve read, not have all those lovely books simply a line in a computerised menu.

  10. I am one of those people who read this book and really didn’t think it was anything special. It was fine for reading at the beach, but I really disliked both main characters, so it wasn’t exactly great to spend so much time in people I didn’t exactly root for. That said, the movie does make the film look great by comparison! I had no interest in seeing it, but Anne Hathaway’s TERRIBLE accent really sealed the deal for me when I saw the trailer!

    1. Hahahaha! The book definitely captured me but the film…yes, that’s one you can definitely strike off the must see list! The trailer was enough to warn me that it wasn’t going to be any good too – as soon as Anne Hathaway spoke I groaned out loud!!

  11. I haven’t seen the movie because I was very skeptical after reading the book about how it would not translate to film well. I knew Anne Hathaway could not produce the reality of the accent. Where as she may have the look of “Emma”, I thought she would lack the necessaries of lineage to pull the job off.

    The book was a tremendously good quick read for me. I too read it in two days. I never wanted to put it down; however, I was suffering from a summer virus and became too exhausted at points to finish it in the one day that I wished to do so.

    The reality of the book hit me hard because I am a product of the same time period. Yet, I am unlike Em and Dex in the sense that I knew where I was going and what I wanted from life. Unfortunately, as with Em and Dex, not everything turns out as expected. This book totally touched me.

    Wonderful review of both book and movie!

    1. You were right to be sceptical, Tina! Anne really doesn’t pull off the accent and it is very distracting. But aside from that, the film just doesn’t work in the format they use. There isn’t enough scope for character development and so many aspects of Emma’s character that make her so real and likeable on paper are totally absent from the film, which makes her very one dimensional. The film very much focuses on Dexter to the detriment of Emma, I think. Thank goodness for the supporting cast – Rafe Spall and Romola Garai as Ian and Sylvie are excellent. Perhaps Romola would have been better as Emma.

      Thank you! I’m very glad you enjoyed the book as I did, and could relate to it. It’s certainly one of those books that packs an emotional punch because of how easy it is to relate to the characters.

  12. Out of curiosity, since you mentioned Gwyneth Paltrow, have you seen Sliding Doors? She did, I believe, a regional accent there, or at least one that wasn’t as posh as Emma or Possession. Just wondered, if you saw that film, what you thought about it.

    1. I have Leticia – she did a pretty standard generic accent from what I recall and I thought she did well at it. The trick is being able to do the tone of voice, which is what many Americans fall down on – we have a much flatter way of speaking which is hard to mimic – I have witnessed this the entire year I have been here! All of my American friends just can’t flatten their vowels enough to sound convincing. Gwyneth Paltrow is very good though – same as Renee Zellweger. They could both pass for natives, I think.

  13. I really loved the book, and I think it speaks well of Nicholls as a storyteller that he could write well enough that the prose didn’t get in the way of the feeling of the story. I know a lot of people have criticized it as a stereotypical “oh you complete me” story, but I think part of its poignancy lies in the fact that Emma and Dex both have lives and can have lives without each other; they don’t need each other for completion, but their lives are enriched by each other.

    I agree that the movie was not what it could have been, but I was so excited that Jim Sturgess played Dex. He was just perfect as Dex, and the best moments of the movie were his.

    And you should definitely consider a Kindle. I was very anti-e-reader, but the number of books you can download for free is pretty great. I especially appreciate that there are books that I can download on my Kindle that aren’t available in the US in print. And perhaps the best thing for me as someone with horrible (and continually deteriorating) eyesight, I love that you can change the size of the type! Plus, it’s a lot easier to read on the Kindle while eating than with a normal book🙂

    1. I like what you say about enrichment – they are true friends and their lives are lit up by each other’s but they don’t need each other to exist.

      Jim Sturgess was excellent as Dex, I agree. I also thought the supporting cast were very good – Rafe Spall and Romola Garai did brilliantly and it’s a shame they weren’t in it more.

      Yes, yes, I know!! I am being partially swayed by these arguments but I just don’t think I’m ready to commit to the revolution just yet!

  14. I didn’t care for the book but maybe I will like Starter for Ten better. I at least like the film of Starter for Ten, moderately, because I love Rebecca Hall and James McAvoy a LOT. And I will do just as you advise and skip the film of One Day.

    1. I LOVE JAMES MCAVOY! I have heard Starter for Ten is very funny but I haven’t read it. Everyone was reading it while I was at university but I didn’t because I was too busy reading intellectual things🙂

  15. I’m glad you said skip the film. I normally like Anne Hathaway but she just irritated me in the trailer — maybe it was her accent (though I didn’t find it that awful in Becoming Jane). And there’s a loooong thread on Entertainment Weekly.com inspired by her terrible accent — a poster was kind enough to include an enormous spoiler, so I know how it ends. I won’t waste my time now.

    1. Oh no! I hate it when people do that! Yes, there is something about her that doesn’t quite work in the role, really. She’s too American I think. I normally love her too – she’s a good actress and very funny, but she just wasn’t Emma.

  16. I seem to be the only person in the world who didn’t like this book. I was bored by it. I will try the film, though!

    1. You are obviously a more discerning reader than most of us Harriet! The writing is very bland but I suppose I just allowed myself to be swept away by Dexter and Emma…maybe because I could so relate to their experiences in their 20s.

  17. I was waiting til I’d seen the film before reading this – I mostly agree with you, especially about the appalling accent, but I did quite enjoy the rest of the film. The book I found utterly gripping, and loved it whilst I was reading it, but afterwards wondered quite why I’d loved it so much.

    1. I enjoyed the film well enough but it didn’t pack the emotional punch I had hoped. Perhaps if I had watched it separately from reading the book I would have seen more redeeming features in it! Funny you should say that – I thought the same a week or so afterwards. For a book that wasn’t that well written and with quite unlikeable people in it, I was surprised by how much I had been gripped by it. Interesting!

  18. I missed this post and am just catching up on your revue and all the comments – and trying to hold everything I want to mention, in my head!

    I’m exactly the same kind of book snob as you, Rachel. If it’s everywhere, I don’t want to join in! Just as when I was younger and everyone was looking up into the sky, I never looked up, too! But I’m not out and about much, and I bought the book on Kindle, so was able to read it in secret quite easily!

    I loved it! John was planning to read it sometime, too, but when the really bad thing happened (don’t want to spoil it for anyone), I blurted it out as he came in the bedroom door the other night. I was so upset! I really cared about Emma and loved her sense of humour.

    About the ages of the protagonists: I’m now at the same age as the mothers of most protagonists – the kind of mother who’s ‘still very active for her age’, as I’ve read!!! Which feels weird!🙂

    I’m so disapoointed to hear the film’s not great. I’ll wait for the DVD, then. But if you’re worried about regional English accents, try being a Scot like me! NOBODY does regional Scottish accents well unless they’re Scottish, I’ve found. In fact, most people seem to think there’s only one Scottish accent…

  19. I think One Day was a good bok, honestly. I haven’t seen the movie, since I don’t think it’s coming to Norway, but when I read the book one year ago (I actually like fantasy books like Harry Potter and that stuff better, but I didn’t have any other books to read that day, so I decided One Day should be a OK book, even though it seemed pretty boring when I read the text on the back of the book – sorry my bad english.) I thought it was really entertaining, sad and funny. I think that the book may fit better for older persons, since i’m just 13, but i still liked it. So i actually recommend it🙂

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