David Freeman’s A First Class Man is this year’s winning screenplay in the Tribeca/Sloan Screenplay Development Program, a joint project of the Tribeca Film Institute and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
A First Class Man examines the life of Indian mathematician and untutored genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920). Born in Tamil Nadu, India, Ramanujan grew up in a strict Brahmin family and as a young boy discovered a passion and natural ability for mathematics. In his early 20s, while working as a shipping clerk in Madras, he sent his work to mathematicians at Cambridge University, attracting the attention of the prominent number theorist G.H. Hardy, who invited him to study there.
Freeman’s screenplay focuses on Ramanujan’s years in Britain (during the First World War) and the unorthodox collaborative relationship that developed between the two mathematicians—one an atheist who prized rigor and analysis, the other a man of faith who relied on intuition. A First Class Man touches on Ramanujan’s enduring work in the theory of partitions (a partition is the number of ways that a whole number can be expressed as the sum of whole numbers, regardless of order: e.g., 4 has 5 partitions: 1+1+1+1, 2+1+1, 2+2, 3+1, 4)
An excerpt of the screenplay was read at the Soho Playhouse on April 29 during the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. Actors included Amir Arison as Ramanujan, Daniel Gerroll as Hardy, and Terrence Mann as Hardy’s Cambridge colleague J.E. Littlewood, and Olivia D’Abo as the love interest, Esme. The reading was followed by a panel, moderated by NPR correspondent Ira Flatow, with Freeman, Dr. Krishnaswami Alladi (editor-in chief of The Ramanujan Journal and Chairman of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Florida, Gainsville), and Dr. George Andrews (Evan Pugh Professor of Mathematics at Penn State University and scientific mentor to the project).
Watch excerpts from the reading:
Freeman is a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and journalist whose books include It’s All True, a Hollywood novel; One of Us, a novel of Egypt and England; and The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, a memoir of his time writing a script with the great director. His play Jesse and the Bandit Queen played for 200 performances at The Public Theatre in New York and has since been performed around the world. A stage version of A First Class Man played in October 2006 at the 46th Street Theatre in New York. Among the movies he’s written are Street Smart, directed by Jerry Schatzberg, starring Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman, and The Border, directed by Tony Richardson, starring Jack Nicholson. He spoke to Sloan Science and Film about A First Class Man, which he is now developing with the assistance of experts in the fields of mathematics and filmmaking selected by the Screenplay Development Program.
When and where did you first encounter Ramanujan’s story and his work?
My wife and I were traveling in India at the time of Ramanujan’s centenary, 1987. He’s a great South Indian hero and the newspapers were full of stories about him. I had known a little about him based on a mild interest in mathematics, and was taken with the idea of this untutored genius but never thought I would write anything. But reading more about Ramanujan led me to G.H. Hardy, and that’s when I saw a story, a drama.
Faith was central to Ramanujan. He believed formulas came to him through prayer. Hardy, in addition to being an atheist, was a Westerner to his toes: He believed in proof, that without proof there was nothing. I could not imagine a greater conflict: two men who worked together as colleagues but had different views of everything. Add to that Hardy’s—by today’s standards, rather quaint—sexuality. He’s what we now call closeted. Ramanujan was—in my view, and in this treatment of it—a man, a lonely guy, who met a woman, and that helps establish in my mind the normal side of him, the like-everyone-else side. And that created yet another conflict for Hardy. The story was tossing off dramatic themes faster than I could catch them. I tried to write it first as a novel, which didn’t work out, and then I went back and did it as a play, and now we have our screenplay.
How deeply did you delve into the mathematics?
Well, for me, I would call it pretty deep, deeper than I expected to. To a mathematician, I was just fooling around. I did some research to try to keep a step or two ahead of an educated audience, but not a mathematically sophisticated audience. There was an area of Ramanujan’s thoughts that could be easily translated in principle, but was complex in depth. When I came across his work in partitions, I knew I had found the mathematical vehicle for this story. After all, anybody can understand the partition of a small number. When you do a large number, 200 for instance, it’s wildly complicated, just breathtaking. No general audience is about to understand the formula for partitioning a number as great as 200 but as long as everyone could understand what it was at 4 or 5, that made for a drama. Had the mathematics been understandable only at a high level, I think I would have had to abandon it.
It’s interesting that you attempt to convey the essence of partition theory. In films like A Beautiful Mind, for instance, you really don’t have a sense of Josh Nash’s work.
That’s a studio decision of the sort we can all recognize. It’s very easy to mock it, but a more nuanced reaction is to say, well, they told us what it was, sort of, but they would lose the general audience if they tried to tell too much. You have to find a balance—a way to get into the subject that is palatable to people who are not experts and don’t expect to become experts. The point of the drama for me was not the math but the characters, the personalities. The math was central to that, but it was not the only thing.
What kind of biographical research did you do?
I did research in India and the U.K. The three principle works were Ramanujan’s collected papers—one of the editors was Hardy; Hardy’s collected papers, which came out after his death, and they include his writings about Ramanujan; and Robert Kanigel’s great biography of Ramanujan [The Man Who Knew Infinity: The Life of the Genius Ramanujan] that was published a few years after I began my work.
Ramanujan’s personality, for all the writing about him, is finally an imagined thing. He died in 1920 and no one alive now knew him. Hardy, on the other hand—Freeman Dyson was a student of his and there were people who knew him. Hardy’s one book that people still read is called The Mathematician’s Apology. The present edition has an introduction by C.P. Snow, a man who tried to bridge the humanist world and the scientific world, and a novelist as well. He went to visit Hardy at the end of Hardy’s life, spent time with him, and wrote about it with a simple eloquence. It’s a lovely essay, certainly the best thing ever written about Hardy. I got a feel in that, and from Hardy’s books, of his voice. He wrote enough so that one could do that. Ramanujan’s more of a mystery—I do believe that I have a kind of legitimate creation there. Whether it’s accurate to the man, no one can say.
Did you talk to any mathematicians?
Mathematicians are hard to talk to. I don’t mean they’re rude—some are and some are not—but they really don’t find it comfortable. They kind of wave you off, they mutter. It was unusual for me to be sitting between two mathematicians [after the reading] and having, you know, a dialogue.
As for the math itself, I would ask applied mathematicians simple questions if I had any doubts, just people I would run into. But there was no mathematics counselor. Now the Sloan Foundation is going to change that. We’re in the process of finding someone who’ll be available to critique what’s there and answer questions that might come up.
In some bios you call yourself a “recovering screenwriter.”
I put that on a book jacket. It’s not really serious, although it is true that I no longer chase screenplays as I once did. It’s gotten so crazy. Every year there are more and more people trying to squeeze through an ever-diminishing aperture: fewer scripts, more screenwriters, a lot of good scripts floating around and going nowhere. I put my energy into my books, which is what I’ve done for some years.
Watch excerpts from the panel: