Published in 2008, thriller novel Child 44 follows MGB agent Leo Demidov as he investigates a child murderer during the cruel and paranoid Stalinist era. The book marked the debut of Tom Rob Smith and garnered critical acclaim as well as several international award wins for its author. It has been translated into thirty six languages and has sold over two million copies worldwide. More good news came when Ridley Scott optioned the film rights. The film appeared on the famous Hollywood Black List back in 2008, featuring the most-liked but unmade scripts of the year.
Now the highly anticipated big-screen adaptation of Child 44, starring Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and Gary Oldman, arrives in cinemas. We spoke to author Tom Rob Smith about his influences for the book, the characteristics of 1950s Russia, and the experience of having his book become a major Hollywood endeavour.
First of all Tom, from where did you draw your inspiration for Child 44?
It was based on the real life case of Andrei Chikatilo, who I read about almost by accident. He was a killer that was responsible for murdering a number of young women and children in the Soviet Union between the 1970s and 1990s. He was tried and convicted for 53 murders but was responsible for many more. He got away with these crimes because the State he lived in denied crime could exist and, when confronted with irrefutable evidence of crime, the State would blame it on people they didn’t like instead, such as political dissents, people with mental health issues, gay people, or drunkards. It struck me that you would think there would be a rallying behind the criminal, but this was a world and society that put this as secondary to political considerations. That was the energy that really drew me in and made me want to tell this story.
What influenced you to set the story in the Stalinist era?
It was about trying to locate it in the most dangerous period of that regime and trying to create a counterpoint to the killer in the book. The killer in Child 44 is not the same as Andrei Chikatilo, in the book he works more as a tool to explore the State of the time, a state that killed millions. I thought it would make a curious, complex and interesting journey to have a character who is working for that state, a police officer who is richly rewarded for arresting innocent people who are probably going to die. This character, Leo Demidov, realises that he is a hero that has almost become a monster. He tries to redeem himself by going after this killer and, in so doing, criminalises himself. It’s a very upside-down crime story, in which all the rules are sort of inverted.
I don’t know whether that story would have connected with me the way it did if I hadn’t been so interested in dictatorships. I think they are interesting from a writer’s point of view because they rewrite society to a specific set of rules. Whether it’s fascism or forms of Communism, these regimes are about saying that this is how the world is, and if you don’t believe it, then you have no place in this society. One of the lies the Communists told was that there is no crime – that crime is a capitalist disease – and clearly there was crime. It was a lie. But if you dared say it was a lie, your life would be in danger. I was always fascinated by those regimes and the way they worked. I went to Moscow when I was seventeen and I think it is a very impressionable country with an incredible history.
There is a great mix of emotion, intrigue and action in the book. Did you find it challenging to balance these elements or what did you find the most challenging aspect of the story?
For me, the emotion was always central, so I was never going to have a female character who was merely there as a wife. The character of Raisa is absolutely pivotal to the book. I think the trickier part was capturing the everyday details of living in Stalinist Russia. It was easy to find out facts about the big historical characters. What I really wanted to know what it was like buying bread, what would you drink at 6pm, what was the accommodation like, what was the housing like. I wanted the minutiae because that was the world that I was trying to bring to life. Everyone knows the big dates, the big historical battles and figures. But my book is about the smaller people whose stories were untold. I don’t think I could have written the book without Everyday Stalinism [by Sheila Fitzpatrick], which was hugely informative about those details.
What was it like being told your book was going to be made into a movie? I understand Ridley Scott approached you…
It was totally surreal. I remember getting the call when I was walking through a park in London, and a very nice agent asked would you take a call from Ridley Scott? I just thought this is bizarre – the book’s deal is just a bundle of pages printed off my laptop with an elastic band around them. It was amazing, of course. Then it goes into a slightly theoretical world of development where again, you feel a bit like you’re dreaming because there is so much potential and possibility for what the film could be like. And then the next time the reality of it hits you is when you’re being driven to set!
The first time I was on set it was a forest scene at night, and there was a fake moonlight created by these sort of floating mattresses filled with helium and light. It was like magic. And I remember suddenly thinking that all these people assembled here are working on something that was just sort of in my head eight years ago, and that made a big impression on me.
Have you seen the film yet? What did you think of it?
Yeah, I love it. I think they did a really great job. The first time I saw it was in the Scott Free [the production company behind Child 44] offices. I really wanted to be able to come out of it and genuinely say they did a good job and that I was thrilled with it, partly because I’m not a very good liar, but also because I knew how much work, time and effort had gone in and you want to be able to celebrate that. I saw it with my agent and when we came out of the screening, I felt not only relief but also pride, and I was very happy to be able to communicate that to Ridley and the others.
Has there been any word on big screen adaptations for any of the sequels to Child 44?
That all depends on it being a success because Child 44 is a very expensive movie. It comes out this Friday and we’ll see from there. It’s in the audiences’ hands.
Another book that I’ve written recently, The Farm, is being adapted by BBC Films, and I’m actually writing the screenplay for it so that is definitely happening and it’s very exciting.
Child 44 is out in cinemas this Friday. Read Scannain‘s verdict here.