Since its publication in 2009, Dutch author Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner has become an international bestseller, published in more than 50 countries.
The Amsterdam-set story has spawned three film adaptations in the past four years: a Dutch offering by Menno Meyjes (2013), an Italian version by Ivano de Matteo (2014), and now director Oren Moverman has shifted the setting to the United States.
“It poses an impossible question: what would you do if your children have committed a horrible crime? How far would you go to protect them?” he offers as a reason why the book has proved so popular with filmmakers.
Moverman has assembled a stellar cast – including Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall – who sit down over a meal to discuss such a family crisis.
The film is split into seven distinct sections, each named after a meal course.
“The movie is structured as the courses of a dinner, but this is really the courses of a narrative,” says Moverman.
“Every course that is indicated in the movie is really the course of the movie and not the course of the dinner.”
Successful politician Stan Lohman (Gere) and his wife Katelyn (Hall) invite his younger brother, Paul (Coogan), a history teacher, and his wife, Claire (Linney), to a fancy restaurant to discuss an incident that has shocked the nation.
Each couple has a 16-year-old son who, together, committed a terrible crime and posted the footage on the internet. The children have yet to be identified, and their parents must decide whether to report them to the authorities.
Of the three film adaptations, this is by far the darkest, in both tone and the fact the parents are more obsessed with themselves and their problems than the misdemeanours of their children.
The brutality of humanity is a theme Moverman has previously explored in his films Rampart and The Messenger. He immediately recognised the human foibles laid bare by the novel.
“The way that I read the book, many of the moments I pull out were already there,” he says.
“Then my anger and need to express myself got into the movie and, luckily for me, I have certain colleagues who share that perspective, that anger about certain things, political and otherwise.”
Portraying his character as a successful politician was important to Gere because he believes the rhetoric used by people in power shapes behavioural norms in society.
“Unfortunately we have leaders who stimulate fear, and that fear causes us to do terrible crimes,” says the actor.
“We have to be careful how we talk about each other and characterize each other.”
Moverman also develops a connection between present-day violence and the violent birth of the United States.
Paul, for example, is obsessed with Gettysburg, the battle in which 50,000 soldiers died during the American Civil War.
“He has this troubled relationship with it as this iconic moment in American history because of the insanity and inhumanity of war,” says Coogan. “And yet he’s also fascinated by it and trying to find some meaning in it.”
This is the third film Linney and Gere have appeared in together, after Primal Fear and The Mothman Prophecies. This is their ugliest pairing, in terms of the characters they portray, but Linney is wary of criticizing the parents out of hand.
“I try not to judge a character when I’m playing them,” she says. ” I have my moral code that I live by and that hasn’t shifted much in my life, but that code has never been truly threatened.
“If it were completely threatened, I hope my behaviour will correspond to that moral code – but it might not.
“I think when it’s truly threatened there might be an animalistic response that will surprise you.”
Hall agrees that it is easy to judge people until you stand in their shoes.
“We don’t know how we will react,” she says. “For me, it’s a film that rests on the old adage that the way you measure the worth of society is how it treats its weakest members.”
It is this carnal nature of humanity that The Dinner really chews over.
• The Dinner is in cinemas from tomorrow.