‘I loved the woman I got to know’, says Neil LaBute in tribute to AS Byatt

American playwright and film director Neil LaBute has paid tribute to the late author Dame Antonia Byatt and said she “had an enormous wit and an even bigger heart”.

Dame Antonia, known as AS Byatt, was “peacefully at home surrounded by close family” when she died on Thursday at the age of 87, according to her publisher.

In 1990, Dame Antonia won the Booker Prize for romance novel Possession, which was later adapted for a 2002 romance mystery movie of the same name starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Toby Stephens and Tom Hollander.

Venice Film Festival
Director Neil LaBute has paid tribute to one of his ‘literary heroes’, AS Byatt on her death (Ian West/PA)

LaBute, 60, directed the film and said he hopes the BBC, ITV or Netflix will make Dame Antonia’s novel into a six-part mini-series.

Paying tribute to the late author, he said: “I had the great luck to meet one of my literary heroes, AS Byatt, through her novel Possession.

“I read it, first as a fan, and then later as one of many writers who were trying to adapt her brilliant story to the big screen.

“She was smart and direct and funny but, above all, so spot on about the work that needed to be done to make her novel jump into another medium; she was the one who unlocked the characters and story for me through reams of notes that … she had written about the early screenplay drafts of writers who had come before me.

“She gave me permission to make ‘Roland’, (Eckhart’s character) in particular, something other than what he was on the page and that helped the whole film move forward.

Frederique Constant new watch collection launch – London
Gwyneth Paltrow starred in the 2002 film Possession (Ian West/PA)

“The same thing happened when she visited us on set at the London Library; I was so starstruck by her that I hardly knew what to do.

“I like the film and loved the experience; Ms Byatt’s novel was never going to fit comfortably into a single movie and we did our best to capture the spirit and the feeling and the romance of the thing.

“I truly hope the BBC or ITV or Netflix or some other sensible studio will one day give the novel its due and create a six-part mini-series that will give her story the space and scope and length that it needs and deserves.”

LaBute said that the book “is one of the great novels of our time” and that it might be “the single most moving ending of any book ever written”.

He added: “But I’ve always been and remain a fan first and foremost — I love her short fiction and I love her novels and her literary criticism is top-notch as well.

“She was a writer, through and through, and while she loved being known as a novelist and an intellectual, she had an enormous wit and an even bigger heart.

“I loved the woman that I got to know for a short time in my life, not just the writer that the rest of the world got to see.

“And my God did she know about writing and writers! She is also responsible for my very favourite quote about those who sit and scratch away at this profession, day after day: ‘To a dusty shelf we aspire.’ We do indeed.”

Ending his tribute, he said: “AS Byatt was a fine writer and an even finer person. She will be missed.”

Dame Antonia, originally from Sheffield and born on August 24 1936, was taught at a Quaker school and later mentored by novelist Dame Iris Murdoch.

Her first novel, The Shadow Of The Sun, was published in 1964 and she went on to write 23 books along with works of criticism, according to her publisher.

Among her work was The Frederica Quartet series, which was adapted for BBC Radio 4 and included The Virgin In The Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman.

Last year, her short story The Djinn In The Nightingale’s Eye inspired a fantasy drama film directed and co-written by Mad Max creator George Miller.

Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton starred opposite each other in 2022’s Three Thousand Years Of Longing, which features a conversation between a genie and an academic in a hotel room in Istanbul.

Dame Antonia lived in Putney, south-west London with her husband, Peter Duffy.