Nicholas Evans, the British journalist-turned-author whose novel-turned-film, “The Horse Whisperer”, broke publishing and cinema records, as well as the hearts of readers who made the book a best-seller in 20 countries, died on August 9 at his home in London. He was 72 years old.
The cause was a heart attack, said his longtime agent, Caradoc King.
In 1993, Mr Evans, aged 43, was broke and adrift. He was working as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, and had spent two years on a film project that eventually fell apart, when he started looking for an idea for a novel. It was perhaps not the most winning formula for social success, as he retrospectively noted on his website: “Why should a first novel by an unknown author have a better chance of taking off than a movie ?”
However, he had found an intriguing subject: the mystical and virile art of horse whispering. His source was a farrier, and Mr. Evans soon learned that the vocation of calming horses had a long history dating back centuries.
In England, however, horse matters have too much class baggage, as he puts it, so he turned to the American West for his story. He got his trump cards when he met Tom Dorrance, a terse cowboy then in his 80s, and watched him soothe a frantic mare in California. He then found two other cowboys who practiced the same fascinating magic and began to create a character inspired by these three men.
Mr Evans sat down and wrote some 150 pages of what would become ‘The Horse Whisperer’, a soapy drama about a young girl and her horse who are hit by a truck, and what happens when her mother, editor of East Coast magazine finds a horse whisperer in Montana to treat her trauma.
The healing that ensues involves more than the horse. Mr Evans showed his draft to Mr King, who sent the partial manuscript to a number of publishers en route to the Frankfurt Book Fair that year. Suddenly Mr Evans was in the midst of a bidding maelstrom, juggling offers from Hollywood as well as book publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Bob Bookman, the Creative Artists Agency agent negotiating the sale of the film rights, asked Mr. Evans what he wanted, Mr. Evans offered a whopping $50,000. “I think we can get $3 million,” Mr. Bookman said, as reported by Sarah Lyall of The New York Times. And they did. Hollywood Pictures and Robert Redford’s film studio Wildwood Pictures won the auction, at the time the largest amount ever paid for the rights to a first novel (nearly $6 million in today’s money). today). Mr. Evans’ North American book advance of $3.15 million from Dell Publishing set another record.
Then Mr. Evans had to finish the book. He told Ms Lyall he had become morbid and superstitious: He stopped cycling and took the slow lane while driving. What he didn’t reveal, not even to his agent, was that he had been diagnosed with melanoma.
Nevertheless, he survived and thrived. The book, which was published in 1995, was a worldwide bestseller that has been translated into 40 languages, although critics criticized it for its melodrama. Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, called it “a sappy romance novel, laced with sentimental patter about the emotional lives of animals and plenty of Walleresque hooey about men and women.”
“The only thing missing,” she added, “is a photo of Fabio on the cover.”
The film, which was released in 1998, received more favorable reviews and modest box office success, thanks to Mr. Redford’s star power and steady hand as a director. He delivered a more restrained version of the Mr. Evans tale, playing Tom Brooker, the horse whisperer. Kristin Scott Thomas was Annie MacLean, the mother, and Scarlett Johansson played Grace, the daughter. Sam Neill was Annie’s cuckolded husband. Mr. Redford’s version ended rather ambiguously; Mr Evans had chosen a more confrontational path and he was initially upset by the change.
For better or worse, Mr. Evans had unknowingly introduced the word “whisperer” into the popular lexicon as a catch-all term for experts capable of taming complicated creatures, such as babies.
“It was an extraordinary event,” Mr King said, recalling the frenzy surrounding Mr Evans’ novel. “That was just the magic of the story. That was the thing.
Nicholas Evans was born on July 26, 1950 in Worcestershire, in the West Midlands of England. He studied law at Oxford University, where he obtained a First, the highest distinction. He worked as a journalist for newspapers and television and produced a weekly current affairs programme. In the 1980s, he made documentary films about artists David Hockney and Francis Bacon, writer Patricia Highsmith and filmmaker David Lean, among others.
He followed “The Horse Whisperer” with three more novels, all bestsellers. “The Divide” (2005), explores what led to the death of a young woman whose body is found in a frozen mountain stream. The story was inspired, he told The Associated Press, by his own questions about the causes of marriage breakdowns – a broken marriage is the story of the book. His own 25-year marriage had recently come to an end, he said.
Like his characters, Mr. Evans was an avid outdoorsman, a charming Bill Nighy look-alike who skied and hiked. And in August 2008, he seems to fall into the plot of one of his own stories, a family idyll turned into a near-tragedy.
He and his second wife, singer-songwriter Charlotte Gordon Cumming, were staying with his brother, Alastair Gordon Cumming, and his wife, Lady Louisa, in the Scottish Highlands. They had picked and enjoyed a meal of wild mushrooms, which turned out to be poisonous. All four fell ill and their kidneys quickly failed. Mr Evans, Mrs Gordon Cumming and his brother needed years of dialysis – and new kidneys. Lauren, Mr Evans’ daughter, donated one of her own. Ms Gordon Cumming was gifted the kidney from the mother of her son’s best friend, and Mr Cumming’s was from a deceased patient. Mr Evans has become a patron of a kidney donation charity. Mrs. Gordon Cumming made a documentary film about her experience.
Mr Evans’ survivors include his wife and four children, Finlay, Lauren, Max and Harry.
His reviews have become more positive with each book. Nevertheless, he tended to avoid reading them.
“The book business is so weird – and the very definition of literary fiction versus business fiction has always struck me as weird,” Mr Evans told the Guardian in 2011. “One is defined by the number books sold, and the other by his ideas and so-called literary merit. And there are all sorts of assumptions that go into that. So, for example, if you’re selling tons of books, you can’t have any d interesting ideas, themes or things to say. And on the other hand, if nobody buys the book, it is considered a mark of their esteem because nobody is smart enough to understand it.