'Call Me by Your Name' Author Opens Up About the Film Adaptation

November 10, 2017

Professor Andre Aciman shares his thoughts about his acclaimed novel and this month's much-anticipated release of the film adaptation.

The film adaptation of Distinguished Professor Andre Aciman's first novel, Call Me by Your Name, has been called "ravishingly sensual" by Variety, "a masterwork" by Esquire, and "a gorgeous gay love story [that] seduces and overwhelms" by The Guardian. It will be released in U.S. theaters on November 24.

The film, directed by Luca Guadagnino from a screenplay by James Ivory, follows the book closely. Call Me by Your Name (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) focuses on the attraction and life-altering friendship that forms between Elio, a 17-year-old living with his parents in an unnamed rural town in Northern Italy, and Oliver, a 24-year-old academic who stays with the family during the languorous summer. A deeply intellectual coming-of-age story, the novel is perhaps best known for its moment-by-moment depiction of infatuation and the discovery of love. As The New Yorker wrote in its review: "Aciman's first novel shows him to be an acute grammarian of desire."

Aciman is also the author of the memoir Out of Egypt (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) two collections of essays; and three additional novels, including Enigma Variations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), published in January. He is the director of The Graduate Center's Writers' Institute and is a professor of comparative literature. Aciman recently spoke to the GC about the film, his connection to Italy, and the differences - or lack thereof â-between fiction and memoir.
So many readers feel a connection to your novel. Do you feel that the film does the book justice?
Everybody assumes that I would have hated the film. I loved it. It was extremely faithful to the spirit of the book.
The very last two pages of the book were meant to provide a sort of reflection about time. A movie cannot actually do that unless you have a voiceover, which I know that the director and the writer of the screenplay did not really want. But they found a way to do this, and their way was cinematic, not literary. A movie can do what a book cannot do; I'm the first to surrender to that notion. And I think that for what a movie can do, it did it better than the book, in many places.

What did you think of the minor changes and additions? In the book, for example, Elio's father is a classicist. In the movie, he is an archaeologist, and one scene shows the excavation of a Hellenic statue.

I thought the idea of making Elio's father an archaeologist was perfect. Had I thought of it, I would have put it in the book! Archaeology is more visual, it's more exciting, as opposed to what a scholar does at his desk. And coming up with a statue that plays out the whole theme of the book, of the story - after all, the statue is of a male body, so it all falls together brilliantly.

Most writers complain that the movie didn't do this or that right, it missed this or got this wrong, or elided entire segments that are vital to the story. I didn't think so. Given the medium, it did it wonderfully.

Another memorable change was having Elio call his mother after Oliver goes away. What do you think of the emotion captured in that scene?
Timmy (Timothee Chalamet) is absolutely brilliant. He basically had to create a smothered sob in his face and his voice. He is about to sob, and he is not going to sob, but he can't help himself, and that was done so beautifully. He's not crying, but he's just about to erupt into tears. And the mother doesn't know it, or maybe she does know, but she doesn't say anything. I thought it was so very tactfully handled.

The setting is so important to the novel and the movie. What is your connection to the places in Italy in which the story takes place?
The novel takes place in Bordighera. I didn't want to name it in the book, but it's known. I go back to Bordighera all the time. Do I belong there? Absolutely not. The mayor wanted to make me a citizen of the city, but it never worked out, because I was never there when he was going to have the ceremony.

I've written about Bordighera quite a bit. It's one of those places that you bond to, and that you go visit time and time again. And eventually I ended up writing a book, because I didn't know what I loved about it. The novel was possibly going to help me unearth what it is I loved so much.

Did you live there in your childhood, like Elio?
No. I passed by it a few times on the train, but I never got off. Eventually, I did get off - there are places that sort of beckon you, they beguile you. And you have no idea why, but eventually you just heed the call, and you get off the train without any reservation. And you look for something that you think is there, but you don't know what it is. Eventually you may find it, but you're never sure you that you have.

I must have been 14 when I first passed by Bordighera. But I didn't really go there until I was much older: in my mid 30s.  

Many readers want to know if a book is autobiographical, and if so, how much of the story is taken from the author's life. What are your thoughts on this?

First of all, let's say this: between fiction and memoir, I don't know what the difference is. They both adhere to the same conventions, and they both tell a story. Usually, as I like to say, you have to move the furniture around in order to give your story a semblance of coherence.

A lot of [this story] has to do with my own life. But I've transferred so much stuff back and forth and around and borrowed from people's lives that it's really very hard to answer the question.

The only thing I can say for a fact is that there was once a summer, and a father, and a house - which is exactly how the book started: it was about a house at the beach, in the summer, with a wonderful set of parents - that is totally mine. It comes from my obsession with houses at the beach. Because we used to have one and we lost it, and I've never recovered from that loss. That part is the truth. The rest is all cobbled together and I can't even sort it out. 

The academic life is featured so prominently in the book and the movie. Did your scholarly interests and teaching influence your writing?
I have taught a lot of Proust. And I'm going to be teaching a course on Proust again next semester. The whole novel is based on Proust's work and also on The Princess of Cleves, which I've taught. There's a lot of psychological reading in the book. The characters are constantly reading each other. Certainly Elio does: he's constantly interpreting what's going on around him. And that's an analytical move that I teach all the time, whenever I teach any novel. I teach a whole course on psychological fiction.

You had a cameo as a member of a couple who are guests at a dinner party. What was it like to appear in your own story?
It was a truly fun moment. They invited me to the set to see how the movie was being made. And I met all the actors and it was really wonderful, and then they said, By the way, we want you to play a part. And I figured it would be one of the servants or a gardener.
The other person in the couple is actually the producer of the film. They made two suits for us, and we show up in these ridiculous suits, which matches the novel: they're both dressed in white suits and purple shirts. Basically, it was just to generate some fun. I enjoyed it totally.