Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” (Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Director Lynne Ramsay admits that she was “the last in a long line” of filmmakers approached to adapt “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Lionel Shriver’s rapier-sharp novel about a mother and son’s failure to bond, and the disastrous consequences that ensue. A smash hit in Ramsay’s native U.K. (she’s Scottish) and a cult classic among the cognoscenti in the States, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is the epistolary confession of Eva Khatchadourian, a travel writer and reluctant parent who is consumed with guilt over her ambivalence.

In Ramsay’s bold, often unnerving adaptation, Tilda Swinton plays Eva as a shell-shocked war survivor, the tale of her battles with Kevin (played by Ezra Miller) unfolding in a series of progressively more horrifying flashbacks.

Ramsay and Swinton sat down at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to talk about the challenge of making and marketing a film that’s often every bit as difficult and confrontational as its title character.

It’s interesting that you’ve made a movie about the failure of a mother and child to attach, and now you’re faced with the task of asking audiences to attach to your baby.

Swinton: We’re still both clueless about how the glue will work. At the same time, I’m already so gratified that people are up for it and not rejecting it immediately. [There] was always the risk that parents would say, “No, never been there, don’t know what it’s about, it’s all a fantasy.”

In the movie, Eva is a quiet, haunted character. We don’t hear the spiky, sardonic voice she revealed in the letters to her husband that propelled the book.

Swinton: We knew that that voice was going to be completely lost. Then the question is, how can you stay in the cinema beyond five minutes with someone as mercilessly tough as Eva? At least in the book you have all of her intelligence to keep you there. In many ways, this is the first film where the biggest risk was making a character more accessible rather than less.

Actress Tilda Swinton, left, and director Lynne Ramsay. (Tobin Grimshaw/For The Washington Post)
The irony of both the book and the movie is that Eva and Kevin are so much alike, whereas the husband and father Franklin (John C. Reilly) seems utterly clueless. He keeps calling Kevin “buddy” when he’s anything but.

Ramsay: I love that Kevin’s the one who speaks the truth. We even took that [idea] to Judy Becker, our set designer, where it was like the whole house looked like a set. And most houses do look like sets; there's a kind of phoniness. And Kevin’s actually the one who in many ways kind of cuts through the crap, you know.

Swinton: There was a moment early on when we were playing around with alternative titles, and a good alternative title would be “Performance.” Because it really is about the performative job of being a parent, that awful fact people really never talk about, which is that parents don’t know what they're doing. And every day there’s that moment when parents feel miscast, with no script.

I read that Shriver wrote “We Need to Talk About Kevin” as a sort of worst-case-scenario thought experiment to help her decide whether she wanted to become a mother. Did the story resonate with either of you on that level?

Swinton: I had already had children when I read the book. I’d had twins, so I’d only been through it the once. But I was very fortunate: I wanted to have them, I was into my pregnancy and, beyond all the mortality-facing issues that pregnancy brings up, I was pretty aligned. They were born, and I remember when I looked at them being aware that I really, really liked them and that I was going to enjoy getting to know them. But at the same time, I was aware that it could have gone another way. It was like the ghost of something that had been waiting around to kick in just went, “Okay, fine, I’ll leave.” I went, “Hang on, what’s that?”

Ramsay: I have doubts [about having children], in fact I’ve had conversations with friends and with my sister as well, like, what if it’s not —

Swinton: — It’s irrevocable —

Ramsay: It also seems that the friends who have done it didn’t think it through that well. Women like me, filmmakers, where you’ve got your job and it’s important to you and suddenly it’s like, “Oh my God, it’s all over.” Also my brother was kind of a sh---y little kid, and his personality’s very defined. He’s very smart, and he drove my mother insane. I don’t know if I liked him sometimes. He was a very selfish person, totally narcissistic, and he’d get in trouble . . . and go back to my mother’s house, and she still puts up with [it]. And she’s hating every minute of it, but she’s a mum, she’s got to clean up his mess.

From the film’s opening image, of Eva being carried through the crowd at the Tomatina festival in Bunol, Spain, to later scenes of Eva visiting Kevin after a cataclysmic event, there’s a similar theme running through the film.

Swinton: The film’s about sacrifice. When people say, “Why on Earth is she going to visit him?” it’s because deciding to be a parent is a sacrifice. You do actually give pretty much everything up. If you’re lucky, you get some things back.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

open at area theaters.