Vera Brittain’s 1933 book Testament of Youth, which charts her experiences as a young woman at Oxford (when that wasn’t a common thing) and her life as a nurse during World War One has become something of a classic. These days, it’s required reading for any number of school children worldwide and its second film adaptation—the first being a 1979 BBC production—is about to hit theaters.
And while the tale is undoubtedly Vera’s, it’s hard to ignore her friend and suitor Roland Leighton—a solider and noted poet—who is dashingly portrayed in the new film by Game of Thrones star Kit Harington. Here, Harington shares his take on Brittain’s work, soldiers’ legacies and his own unsuccessful turn as a poet.
Were you familiar with Testament of Youth before signing up for the movie?
It was a book studied at school, in fact, when I was studying English Literature. That’s kind of what grabbed me when I saw it was Testament of Youth. I knew the story. I knew what it was about, and I knew it to be a sort of harrowing tale.
So you were ready to sign on for harrowing?
I was quite intrigued with what they were going to do with it. And they adapted it as such that it made for a concise, interesting, detailed piece—whereas it’s quite a sprawling book. I felt like they dealt with the source material very well. And I wanted to do it because it was a character who is charming and wonderful at the start, and then goes through this transition of being broken.
Roland’s interesting because he’s at once totally special but also going through what so many young men of the time did.
It’s a singular experience shared by millions. He’s obsessed with heroism and obsessed with duty and honor and all those things and then it’s broken down in him, and we see that in a single scene.
You don’t often see portrayals of soldiers who are also poets—or vice-versa.
I would hope that extreme situations would push people into creative expression. I hope that’s still the case, and I think it is. I don’t know whether people have such an appetite for poetry anymore, that’s the difference. Back then, poets were kind of the celebrities of the day, you know. Rupert Graves was a heartthrob because of his poetry. It’s just a different period, a different time, and these are very intelligent young men going into the army who have a different way of talking about their feelings. I don’t know if we give a platform for soldiers now to talk about their feelings, but what this film does is show us a young man who has a real idea of what he wants to do with his life.
Did you find yourself reading the poetry of the era?
Yeah, I read a bit. And it is some of the most moving, significant poetry you can come across. I also thought it was really important for me and the cast to get the source material that we had, which were letters from Roland to Vera, and also some of Roland’s poetry. I got a real insight to who he was through that kind of material.
You’ve said you could relate to his confidence.
I think so, some sort of bravado, anyway. When I got into this project, I saw Roland as more troubled than he was. I’m always likely to see more characters to be more troubled than they are. And the director had to keep pushing me toward [the idea] that he was a popular boy at school, full of confidence, full of public school mentality. He had the world at his feet, and he was self-assured and happy and it was a glorious summer that they spent together before he went off to war.
Do you think there are lessons for today’s youth in what these kids went through?
There’s a lesson that’s quite clear, which is that this was a generation indoctrinated into believing a certain set of ideals. It was a different generation that believed in politicians that believed in its countries and believed in what those countries were fighting for, and I think that in both the U.S. and the U.K., you don’t necessarily believe in that anymore. For right or wrong at that time, many young men died, and we need to keep paying tribute to that era and the people who died in it so that we know what the cost of war was. We need to remember what we were fighting for.
Did portraying the horrors of war make this a difficult movie to film?
It wasn’t that tough. I hate to say that, but it really wasn’t. If you look at the film and how much of my time is spent in the trenches, it’s very little. The rest is sort of halcyon memories of youth, which was very fun, with me and Taron [Egerton] and Alicia [Vikander] running around fields in the sunshine having a great time. Other than having a wig strapped to my head every morning, it was pretty good shoot.
Have you tried your own hand at poetry?
Not for a few years, actually. I used to write poetry, but not anymore. I thought I was rubbish and gave up. It’s a very brilliant form of getting thought down on paper very quickly. Maybe I will pick it up again at some point.