The Child In Time, the BBC adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel of the same name, gets its American premiere on April 1, 2018 on PBS. The TV movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch as children's author and father Stephen Lewis, trying to live his life after the abduction of his only daughter. Lewis' books aren't real, and The Child In Time's Stephen Lewis is not a real author. But the fear that drives the drama is very real.
In an interview with the BBC, Cumberbatch spoke about how he brought himself into the character. It was difficult for him, especially as a parent himself. "When you’re dealing with something like the loss of a child it’s pretty distressing, I won’t lie," he said. "It was a very unpleasant place to go to. By circumstance it happened that my second boy had been born weeks before [filming.]"
While the character in the novel and the film is now based on a real person, McEwan's choice to write about a children's author losing a child can be seen as an especially cruel one. The character exists in a career field where children and children's entertainment are always a topic of conversation. Lewis isn't able to leave his dread and guilt at home, as he is constantly reminded about his life's greatest tragedy. While Cumberbatch has played larger-than-life roles dealing with different degrees of sadness, from Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Strange and even Hamlet, Cumberbatch told Variety, "[Stephen Lewis is] a part that’s a million miles away from a lot of stuff I’ve done."
The adaptation of Stephen Lewis to film was an incredibly personal affair for the actor. In speaking with Radio Times, Cumberbatch explained, "[Stephen is] me, as in, there’s not a huge difference in the vocal quality, the way I move. I even wanted to feel really relaxed in costume, so I brought in my own clothes, some of which we used ... The starting point was me." But while Cumberbatch is bringing his own experience to the role, constructing the character was likely also a personal affair for the original author.
The novel on which the television movie is based is an exploration of the fear of losing a child and how to put one's life back together afterwards. It won some major critical acclaim for the then young author. McEwan, himself a father and writer, won the Whitbread Novel Award in 1987 for the harrowing story. While McEwan himself had not experienced the loss of a child before he wrote the book, the author told The Paris Review that many aspects of the character of Stephen Lewis are reflective of himself, specifically the fictional author's relationship with his parents, who play a important role in the book. He described the characterization of Lewis' parents as, "fairly close" to his own, "though somewhat idealized." He continued, "My parents had a difficult relationship without ever conceding the fact, and it was hard to write about when they were both still alive."
While Cumberbatch and McEwan both had experience as fathers to pull from when working on The Child In Time, Cumberbatch explained to the BBC that getting too emotionally invested in such demanding material can be risky. "Playing with your own experience can be incredibly dangerous anyway as you need to be able to separate things very easily, otherwise they can get out of control and be very damaging," he said in the same interview.
So though Stephen Lewis is an original character created for the source novel, his journey will most likely evoke a lot of complicated feelings in the movie's audience.