Sunday, December 11, 2011

Literary carnival notes 2: book-to-film adaptations

[Did a shorter version of this for my Sunday Guardian column]

At the Times of India Literary Carnival, I participated in a panel about books being adapted into films. Adeptly moderated though the discussion was – by author, screenwriter and all-round funny man Anuvab Pal – there’s no way an hour-long session can cover all bases on this wide-ranging topic. Still, it was a good excuse to put together some of my scattered thoughts about adaptation. Here goes:

One of my peeves as a film buff is that too many reviews these days discuss movies almost exclusively in terms of their plots. Overemphasis on story has the effect of neglecting how the story is told with the techniques that cinema has at its disposal (and which differentiate it from literature). It also fosters a culture where some reviewers (both in mainstream and online media) don’t even feel the need to be acquainted with the most rudimentary camera movements: the difference between a pan and a tracking shot, for example, or between a match cut and a jump cut.

If you even mention these things while discussing a film, you might be accused of getting “too technical”, but this is basic moviemaking grammar. It would be unthinkable for a professional book reviewer to not know the difference between active voice and passive voice, or between a first-person and third-person narrative. (Actually a good book reviewer would be expected to know much more, but I’m deliberately setting the bar very low here!) It’s a pity then that movie critics are held to much lower standards simply because cinema is such a popular and egalitarian form.

Anyway, this may be something to keep in mind while assessing the quality of an adaptation and the ways in which a film deviates from the book it was based on. One of the things that came up during our discussion was that the high quality of a literary work does not necessarily translate into high quality in the movie made from it. (If that were the case, a stationary-camera recording of a good stage production of Hamlet would automatically be a great film.) As our co-panellist Sooni Taraporevala, the screenwriter of such films as Salaam Bombay and The Namesake, put it: “A film mustn’t simply be an illustration of the book.”

I also liked the term Sooni used – “spiritual DNA” – to refer to the essence of a literary work, which is what an adapting screenwriter should mainly be concerned with. Thus, a good adaptation might capture the essential theme or mood of a book even if superficial details of period, setting and character names are altered. Shakespeare is a good example: there have been Japanese, Russian and Indian film versions of his work, made in languages that are arguably twice removed from the 16th century English he worked in. There have also been modernised versions, such as the 1995 Richard III which shifted the action to the pre-World War II years and included a scene where Richard speaks part of his “winter of our discontent” soliloquy while standing at a men’s urinal.

If you’re a purist, such changes might seem sensationalistic, but I think the film catches the essence of Shakespeare’s memorable protagonist: the self-loathing mixed with self-pitying, the insatiable appetite for scheming and deceiving, the need to avenge himself on everyone around him. (Another example in a similar vein: in Roman Polanski’s excellent Macbeth, Lady Macbeth does her sleepwalking scene in the nude. It has been cynically noted that the film was co-produced by Playboy, but I don’t think there’s anything gratuitous about the scene itself; it works quite well as a depiction of the sudden vulnerability of a character who has been so thoroughly in control for most of the play.)

But often, spiritual DNA isn’t easy to define, especially when adaptation involves a big change in period or setting. John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola adapted Joseph Conrad’s 1903 novel Heart of Darkness into Apocalypse Now, significantly updating the story – Conrad’s themes of imperialistic hegemony, exploitation and the savagery in human nature were set in a story about a man from a “civilised” country (England at the height of its powers) journeying into a “place of darkness” (the African Congo), and the film placed these ideas in the context of what America was doing to Vietnam in the 1970s. Yet the differences between the two works are just as important: Conrad’s book is full of darkness and despair, but it has a moral compass – a sense that one can visit the darkest areas of the soul and return with one’s sanity intact – whereas Apocalypse Now is a more nihilistic work – it’s very much a product of a century that had seen two world wars, nuclear destruction and the greatest horror of all, the Holocaust.


Earlier at the festival, I spoke with the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, whose novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is being made into a film by Mira Nair. “I didn’t realise writers and filmmakers were such different sorts of people,” he said jovially, relating his admiration for how attuned Nair was to the activities of every last person on her set. Working in seclusion is central to what writers do, whereas film directors – even the relatively introverted ones – have to be adept at managing groups of people. This personality conflict between writers and directors (and occasionally between writer-directors and money-minded producers) has shaped the course of movie history, providing some hugelyentertaining anecdotes along the way. (Walking through a long hotel corridor that morning before leaving for the fest venue, I had a vision of the apocalyptic, burning-hotel climax of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, a film about a hapless screenwriter coming to Hollywood and ending up, quite literally, in Hell.)

But there are also times when a serendipitous collaboration occurs between two people who might seem very different “types”. Consider Ruskin Bond and Vishal Bhardwaj. Bond’s writing style is genteel in the old-fashioned English way, the prose Spartan and direct; Bhardwaj’s films tend to be baroque, set in the Indian hinterland and peopled by rough-speaking types. The two men barely speak a common language, but I watched them in conversation at an event earlier this year and realised that in some things – notably in their shared penchant for black humour – they were on exactly the same wavelength. This helps explain their friendship and frequent collaboration, most notably on Bond’s children’s story The Blue Umbrella, which Bhardwaj made into a film that was much lusher in tone than Bond’s story (right down to the claustrophobia-inducing close-ups of Pankaj Kapoor as the greedy shopkeeper). It’s an example of a really good adaptation that doesn’t try to be slavishly faithful to its source material.

On the question of slavish faithfulness: when a literary work is being turned into a commercial or semi-commercial film, it’s almost inevitable that there will be changes that the original writer doesn’t care for; there will be a certain amount of pandering to the star system, and so on. During the audience Q&A, someone mentioned the “Dola re Dola” song in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version of Devdas, which brought together Paro and Chandramukhi, two characters who have nothing to do with each other in the original story. Even defenders of Bhansali’s opulent filmmaking style would probably concede that a large part of the motivation for the scene was having Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai together on screen for a spectacular, paisa-vasool dance performance.

I wrote in this post about R K Narayan’s sardonic essay about the making of Guide. The process of “glamorising” his small-town story and its characters would have begun at the point where Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman – big stars with established screen personas – were cast in the roles of Raju the guide and Rosie the dancer. And of course, many changes were made to the story itself. But however much one admires and sympathises with Narayan the writer, the film must ultimately be judged on its own terms (and many movie buffs would agree that the Hindi version of Guide is an outstanding achievement in commercial filmmaking). There are many instances of movies that are excellent in themselves while being less than satisfying as adaptations.


During our session Sooni spoke interestingly about how, when turning a novel into a screenplay, she had to find an exterior expression for the interiority of a character’s thoughts. This must have been especially relevant to her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, because the book had surprisingly little dialogue; mostly it took the form of an omniscient narrator telling us about the lives and thoughts of Gogol and the other characters. Sooni had to create voices for these people, who had to be depicted on screen by flesh-and-blood actors who would actually talk to each other.

Writing aside, there are thousands of instances of a seemingly minor decision by a filmmaker adding layers to the story he is adapting – from Satyajit Ray’s use of Ravi Shankar’s shehnai music at key emotional points in Aparajito (based on Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s book which, needless to say, did not use music of any sort as an accompaniment to a dramatic scene!) to Stanley Kubrick filming a frenetic orgy in fast motion (and with a fixed camera impassively recording the action) in A Clockwork Orange (based on Anthony Burgess’s novel, which was widely believed to be unfilmable). I'll be putting up a few more notes on this subject in the coming weeks, with more examples. Meanwhile, here are some earlier, related posts: Susannah’s Seven Husbands from short story to script; R K Narayan and Guide; The Namesake; Polanski’s Macbeth; my Yahoo column on story and storytelling.


  1. beautiful post Jai, it had such wealth of information and must be meeting a lot of eccentric creative and pseudo-creative people, why don't you write a fictionalized piece may be a play, a film or a book on these people...on a different note, any idea when are we gonna watch the film on The Reluctant Fundamentalist?

  2. Pessimist Fool: thanks! Nice to do a rambling collection of thoughts like this once in a while, even if it doesn't provide the satisfaction of a properly structured piece. No idea about the Reluctant Fundamentalist film - won't be too long hopefully.

  3. Jai: Well, the beauty is lack of structure, its almost as if you are talking...and you know i realized it didn't have a structure just because you mentioned it in your comment :-)

  4. One cliche' question: 1 book that you think should have been made into a movie?

  5. Dpnwta: oh, lots, and will need to think about it but off the top of my head: 1) Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree stories, 2) Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, adapted by someone with the sensibility of Bunuel and the visual sense of Welles, 3) Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories, especially Leave it to Psmith, 4) A mammoth, 600-hour surreal adaptation of the Mahabharata, where the entire war is fought out as a series of tennis matches.

    (Last two comments transferred from Facebook)

  6. Mahabharata as tennis matches sounds extremely interesting, with NIKE doing such wild ones with basketball, tennis match seems a lil tame. Please write a post on this. I am ever hopeful that someday Mahabharata would see the light of a major multipart Hollywood production, not in the manner of Twilight but more in the lines of LOTR. And Bhagvad Gita being one entire film.

  7. Dpnwta: well, I did a short post a long time ago about the Mahabharata's possibilities as a 1930s Hollywood production, with Groucho Marx as Krishna. Here it is. The comments are more interesting than the original post.

  8. Enjoyed the post! And you do get around :) I sold the film rights to my first book and was fortunate to be a consultant on the film script - it taught me something about how differently film makers look at a book for adaptation. Sooni's take on giving an exterior to what is often an interiority in a novel rings true.

    As for books which have been successfully adapted to films I'd think Godfather and the Lord of the Rings trilogy would be up there. Harry Potter series as well.

  9. "3) Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories, especially Leave it to Psmith,"

    Ahhh! That would be the day. One of my all-time favourite Wodehouse books. I remember it as a long-ago Doordarshan TV serial that starred Mazhar Khan in the Psmith role, but I haven't seen any movies of it. Nor any good movies of the other Wodehouse books, either, for that matter.

  10. Jai I've been a very appreciative reader of your blog for a couple of months now, but I need to break my silence to ask if there is anyway that we could view video footage from the panel discussions at the literary carnival. I would be very interested in viewing your session as well as the one on lyricism with Gulzar and the one on writer-directors with Zoya Akhtar.

    India Today posts video recordings of all their summit talks online, will TOI be doing the same thing?

  11. As for books which have been successfully adapted to films I'd think Godfather and the Lord of the Rings trilogy would be up there.

    Manreet: yes, those are examples of bestselling books being adapted into very popular films. But there are dozens of other cases of high-quality movies being made from books that were so low-profile that many fans of the film didn't even realise there was a book in the first place.

  12. Dustedoff: Mazhar Khan as Psmith?! When did this happen and why did I miss it?

    Anon: no idea about videos - I haven't even seen a photo of my session yet, though there certainly were professional photographers around. If I find out, I'll put up a link.

  13. Mahabharata war as series of tennis matches? Oh my, now I miss DFW!

  14. @Jabberwock: Yes, Mazhar Khan as Psmith. Kiron Kher was in the series too, I think in the role of Lord Emsworth's sister - which one of them was it in that book?

    This was ages ago. Sometime in the mid or late 80s. It was called 'Isi Bahaane'.

  15. Excellent article, Jai..Most film critics in newspapers restrict themselves to plot synopsis, rating the technical aspects as good or bad and finally suggesting viewers to watch a movie or not. The idea of looking at the medium much differently from that of a book has never occurred to most of them or even if it did, they'd avoid the thought to align themselves to the lowest denomination of reading. When critics have to give an opinion every Friday unfailingly after their hurried first impressions, maybe there's just not enough time and even intent to look at the technique.

    But am still curious - how does one evaluate cinematography, sound or something more intangible like editing when we watch a movie?

  16. Oh, Blandings Castle, for one! It's the perfect script for making into a movie. Leave It To Psmith was made into a TV serial with Mazar Khan as Psmith, Anu Agarwal as Eve Halliday, Saeed Jaffrey as Lord Emsworth and Kiron Kher as Lady Constance (though she was his wife in the serial, instead of his sister), Malvika Tiwari as Phyllis (I've forgotten who played Mike), and Susmita Mukherjee as Smooth Lizzie.

    I'd love to have the Faraway Tree adapted! I didn't think anyone even remembered those anymore.

  17. Lovely piece, Jai. Adapting a book to a film is one tricky affair, but reviewing such a movie requires a shift in the way its 'watched and taken in'. When the Japanese movie Norwegian Wood was released last year nearly all the reviewers / critics panned the movie and the main reason they cited was that it was not they expected , or rather how it should have been , referencing the original - Haruki Murakami's book. I watched the movie and absolutely loved it. But having read the book before did me a lot of harm in appreciating Anh Tran's version because I knew the story. I was aware through out that the manner in which Tran (the Vietnamese film director) was opening up the plot and the characters was very sensual and distinct from the book. It was his take, the book became his own. Making the film was just the next step. In such cases, it becomes invaluable to seek opinions (of sensible writers I mean) who haven't read the book. The movie will work its wonders in a different way for such viewers and such positive takes become essential. I will never be able to do it as I already had a template but the I knew there was something magical and very sensory going on onscreen. (Also, may be that the book is so imprinted into my mind that it requires a great effort on the part of the filmmaker who adapts it that I'd readily let go of the book and see the film as a different entity of its own. May be Tran couldn't achieve it but the film didn't deserve such a negative backlash.)

  18. Anu, Dustedoff: I vaguely remember Isi Bahane now, but I don't think I ever realised that it was a Leave it to Psmith adaptation - or maybe I hadn't read the Wodehouse yet so couldn't make the connection

  19. E Pradeep, Anonymous: thanks for those comments. I'm hoping to write a lot more on the subject of adaptation in the coming weeks - need to perhaps collect my thoughts offline instead of putting something on the blog the minute it comes into my head!

  20. But however much one admires and sympathises with Narayan the writer, the film must ultimately be judged on its own terms

    Very much agree.
    Just rewatched that remarkable Korda film That Hamilton Woman. God knows how accurate a description it is of late 18th century England or of Nelson and Emma Hamilton. But I couldn't care less. What I do know that it is almost peerless among period films in the quality of entertainment it dishes out over two hours.

    I recently watched this rather funny TV interview with Vivien Leigh from the late 50s. The critic who appears in this clip bemoans the lack of authenticity of Scarlett O'Hara in the Selznick picture, because the character was played by an Englishwoman!

    What balderdash. The only thing to savour in GWTW is Ms.Leigh's acting. The fact that she is not a Southern belle in real life should be the least of everybody's concerns!

  21. Re unfilmable movies - Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is worth a mention as a meta narrative about the filming of Tristram Shandy, while actually telling the original story as vignettes from the unreleased film as well as in spirit mirrored by the actor's (Steve Coogan, who essays the titular role).

    Did not know Clockwork Orange was unfilmable? I always thought it was a bit of a 'product' which Burgess wrote to part capitalize on/part critique the swinging sixties. Could you direct me to anything which substantiates the assertion? Loved reading your post though!

  22. Such an interesting and enlightening read!Read the pieces on The Namesake and Macbeth adaptations as well. Really looking forward to watch those films after reading your review.