Who links together The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, Killing Bono by Neil McCormick, The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, and Marvel’s The Punisher comics?
The answer, in case the headline wasn’t a big enough clue, is British actor Ben Barnes: he’s appeared in screen adaptations for all of them. And now he’s adding a seventh to the list: the Shadow and Bone series by Leigh Bardugo, in which he’ll play General Kirigan aka The Darkling when it airs on Netflix this month.
Barnes’ love of literature runs deep, as evidenced by his English and drama degree and by the stack of books he pulls together to discuss with me. We’re talking, of course, via Zoom, the benefit of which being that at one point I’m taken on a tour of said bookshelves (neat as a button; I spot the distinctive turquoise and red spine of Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, and something that looks like a book of quotations).
First, though, we count the film and TV adaptations he’s been in and talk about Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong; Barnes played the lead role in Trevor Nunn’s stage adaptation of the sublime 1993 novel.
When he heard about the role, Barnes was in – no questions asked. “I think there are handful of books in my life that I've been in tears by the last page, and that was certainly one of them,” he tells me. “It was a very visceral reading experience.”
With Faulks, Barnes sounds like he was – and there’s no other way to describe it – a fanboy (much like the legions of teenage girls who scream at him at premieres). “To be able to go on radio shows with Sebastian Faulks and him talk about the book and me talk about the adaptation was so thrilling,” recalls Barnes. “It was the first, and only, time I've ever been sort of starstruck by an author. I was, you know, falling on the floor.”
Barnes might not be starstruck regularly, but he speaks with the same passion about all the books we discuss, and about reading in general. He describes himself as a logophile (meaning a lover of words - a term he ironically only learned recently), perhaps unsurprising for someone who not only loves to read, but whose job is to infuse meaning into words written by others.
“Words become important in my job in terms of the specificity,” he says. “I like to break down the words that I'm saying and decipher why each word is there, and what's important about it and why it's in that order in the sentence.”
He puts the same effort into reading. Barnes describes it as a sensory experience: he confesses he likes to smell new books when he gets them, demonstrating with a recently purchased copy of Atonement by Ian McEwan, a favourite that he plans to reread. He also takes dust jackets off hardbacks because “it's almost always more beautiful underneath” (he also reads exclusively physical editions of books).
Ben Barnes' favourite books
“If I could go and read Ivan Denisovich sitting on a prison floor, I'd probably do it,” he says, referring to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which he read when he was about 14. “When I go on holiday, I take Bill Bryson because he's writing about travel and he's making me giggle.”
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a formative book for Barnes (his pronunciation of Solzhenitsyn, by the way, is flawless), and one of a number that stick with him from his adolescence. Others include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Henri Charrière’s Papillon. All are books, he points out, about prisons of a sort; he’s drawn to narratives (and roles) “about disenfranchise and struggle with a very faint kernel of hope”.
He’s moved away from prison stories for recent favourites, which include Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage ("[it] really made me feel like I was having an experience in someone else's shoes”), Humankind by Rutger Bregman (“the optimist’s salve to put on the Sapiens’ wound”) and Sally Rooney’s Normal People (“I love the quiet insightfulness of it”). He’s currently reading Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, and is astounded: “[It’s got an] absolutely thrilling first third. You're like, is he gonna become the president? It's written that superbly that you're almost convinced that it might go a different way.”
Over the past year, he’s also been drawn to books about what he calls the “psychology of happiness”, such as Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy. Older favourites he’s picked out to show me are the aforementioned Atonement and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which sit alongside Birdsong as those rare books that made him cry. Also in the pile are Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, in an edition that’s one of a number of books from his university days on his bookshelves.
We take that trip to Barnes’ bookshelves for what I think will be the easiest question of the interview, and turns out to be the hardest: who, I ask, were his literary crushes when he was a teenager? After much deliberation, he spots a copy of Graham Swift’s Waterland, and remembers the character of Mary: “I remember feeling like I was the boy in it and living vicariously in that awakening type of relationship in that book.” On a roll, he also cites Jane Austen’s heroines, including Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, who he says must have had huge appeal for him to keep going back to those books.
The light-hearted question has tapped into what it is that Barnes, and so many other people (who aren’t world-famous Hollywood actors) love about reading: that there’s something universal in books that speaks to us all.
To explain, Barnes references Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys. “There was a line from it that I’m almost certainly going to butcher,” he says, before proceeding to do just that. To be fair, it’s a long line, and it was said by a character he didn’t play; I offer to look it up and pretend he reeled it off, but he wants to see for himself.
The quote is, says Barnes, “the most beautiful thing”, and having heard the correct version – once Barnes finds it on his phone – I can’t help but agree. It seems fitting that an actor has turned to the words of someone else to describe how he feels: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”