Monday, October 08, 2012

By the book: more thoughts on adaptation

[A version of my latest column for GQ magazine]


This is an unusually busy time for movies based on high-profile novels. Deepa Mehta’s film of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is finally ready, as is Ang Lee’s adaptation of another Booker-winner, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Meanwhile the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s marvellous The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been given cinematic life by one of my favourite directors Mira Nair, and Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqi are in the process of adapting Amitav Ghosh’s sprawling historical novel Sea of Poppies.

Naturally the release of each of these films will be accompanied by much hand-wringing and cries of “but...but...but...” by viewers who have read the books (and by some who haven’t read them but have mastered the enviable art of speaking knowledgeably about them nonetheless). Each of us will at some point morph into a version of the comic-strip goat who, after chewing on a roll of celluloid, says ruminatively to his companion, “The book was better.” Questions of faithfulness to the original will be raised, omitted passages will be bewailed, shock will be expressed at the casting of this actor in that role. Midnight’s Children in particular will be closely dissected, since Rushdie’s novel is nearly as much of an Unavoidable Baggy Presence for Indian Writing in English as Ulysses was for 20th century fiction; even a flawless film might easily be weighed down by unreasonable expectations.

Personally I try to judge movies based on what they achieve with their medium's techniques, rather than as slavish illustrations of literary works. But I confess to a flicker of trepidation about the adaptations mentioned above, because some of the things I most like about these books don’t seem easily translatable to film. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, for instance, is marked by a distinctive first-person voice: the protagonist, a Pakistani man named Changez, addresses an unnamed American tourist in a courtly, almost ingratiating style. (“Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.”) This narrative has a stylised, off-kilter quality that makes it difficult for the reader to know exactly what Changez’s intentions are (in an interview, Hamid told me the effect he was reaching for was “that you’ve walked into a darkened theatre and there’s one actor on the stage taking you through the play”) and what effect he is having on his listener - so that even the simple description of someone putting his hand into his jacket pocket is laced with the possibility that he might be reaching for either a business card or a weapon.

With Life of Pi, the potential pitfall is one that is especially relevant to the fantasy (or part-fantasy) genre: a book lets you imagine its characters and incidents for yourself while a film gives them immutable shape. (I mostly loved Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but its depiction of the flaming Eye of Sauron in the final sequences was problematic; presented as a roving, Twentieth Century Fox-style flashlight, Tolkien’s bodiless villain lost the chillingly abstract quality he - it? - had in the books.) Martel’s novel – about a teenage boy adrift on a lifeboat with a fearsome Bengal Tiger – gets much of its force from the irresolvable ambiguity of the narrative: is Richard Parker the tiger a real presence or is he an invention, a wish-fulfillment device that allows young Pi to focus his thoughts and survive a difficult ordeal? But the movie, by its very nature, has to literalise the book's central voyage, and if you see a large tiger on the screen once, it is difficult to be subsequently convinced of his unreality.

The adaptation that most intrigues me though is the Sea of Poppies one. Rizvi’s film is provisionally titled Afeem (19th century opium trade being central to Ghosh’s story) and anyone familiar with her debut Peepli Live knows she can bring the required sensitivity to this tale of people from various backgrounds journeying across the ocean, driven more by despair than expectation. ("Both Peepli Live and Sea of Poppies are stories about the psychological effects of migration," she told me during a recent chat.) But the most riveting thing about Ghosh’s novel wasn’t its plot – it was its use of language. Its lascar sailors (“who came from places that had nothing in common except the Indian Ocean”) speak a dynamic hybrid of tongues, made of words picked up from various countries, and the European characters who have been living in India for generations use phrases such as “He turned a ship oolter-poolter” and “It would never do to be warming the coorsey when there’s kubber like this to be heard”.

To my mind at least, such details work better on the printed page than on the screen (where, if not handled exactly right, they might too easily devolve into tedious slapstick). However this is, as always, dependent on the quality of the treatment, the casting and the performances. During our conversation, Rizvi mentioned that most of the script would be in Bhojpuri – something that is singularly appropriate for this book – and it was nice to read a blog entry by Ghosh expressing enthusiasm for the project. Authors aren’t always the best judges of movies based on their work, of course, but of the adaptations mentioned above Afeem sounds like the one that is most worth warming the multiplex coorsey for.

[Earlier posts about book-to-movie adaptations: Susannah’s Seven Husbands from short story to script; notes from the Times of India lit-fest; A Kiss Before Dying; R K Narayan on a movie set]


  1. Afeem will certainly be worth looking out for. Mahmood Farooqui, I assume, is equipped, as adequately as anyone else, to handle the linguistic fineries of the book.

  2. I guess it just happened that the high profile novel adaptations all have subcontinent connections?!

    I've long given up trying to look for "worthy" adaptations etc. I don't even know what that means anymore. I think now I look for some sort of harmony between the book and the novel. Whether the film can stand on its own as a story, as what it tries to achieve. Can it act as a bookend? Are the omissions and additions working for the film (and not necessarily the novel)? Those are the question to find answers for. I was thinking about The Perks Of Being Wallflower and its adaptation, how they'll transfer the epistolary setting without landing into tedium. That also reminded me of On The Road, the adaptation that was screened at Cannes and then the buzz died. Another coming of age novel, something that on screen will probably be only a series of vignettes and if there isn't some sense of control, can just fall apart.

  3. Gradwolf: no, more like I have just lazily focussed on subcontinent books for the purpose of this column! David Mitchell's hugely complex (and, one might have thought, unfilmable) novel Cloud Atlas has just been made into a film by the Wachowski brothers, and there must be a few other high-profile adaptations in the works.

  4. On the adaptations from the book to the film for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I hear the location of the place where Changez is told about the Janissaries has been changed from Valparaiso in Chile to Istanbul. As that odd Indian who lives in Chile and looks at the hills of Valparaiso from her home every evening, that broke my heart a little. I am sure Istanbul has its own cultural relevance to add to the story but an old bookshop in Neruda's Valparaiso is just where he should have had that conversation with the old man.

  5. This is one of my pet peeves.
    People complaining that the film doesn't faithfully reflect the books or something to that effect.

    These are two different art forms. Why even expect any kind of faithful adherence.

    My favourite "literary" film is perhaps Wyler's Dodsworth. Not sure how faithful it is. But at no point during the film do you realize you are watching an adaptation! That's the hallmark of a great adaptation - a film that makes you oblivious to the "baggage" of the book.

  6. oh, thats some line-up. i am very excited about The Reluctant Fundamentalist. has anyone ever adapting Naipaul's books apart from Mystic Masseur. and anyone dared asking him his opinion on the adaptation :)

  7. I think now I look for some sort of harmony between the book and the novel.

    There doesn't need to be any kind of harmony, as the author of the film is the director/screenwriter who could be very different individuals from the author of the book.

  8. These are two different art forms. Why even expect any kind of faithful adherence.

    Shrikanth: I largely agree with this in principle, but the actual process can be much more complicated when you're watching the film version of a book that you really love or feel an emotional engagement with (and especially if the film has set itself up as a direct adaptation rather than a "loosely based on" or "inspired by"). I don't know if someone who really liked Dodsworth the novel would have responded to the film the same way we did, for example. (Perhaps such a person might simply have imagined someone very different from Huston in the lead role, and that would have been enough to create a disconnect. Or there might be a hundred other factors, incuding some as apparently trivial as my peeve about the flashlight-Sauron thing.)

  9. Padma: didn't know about that - that's a pity. Sounds like they wanted to tap the visual and symbolic potential of Istanbul as a place that shows the synthesis of Eastern and Western influences.

  10. but the actual process can be much more complicated when you're watching the film version of a book that you really love or feel an emotional engagement with

    Fair enough. Having said that it behooves the audience to make the mental adjustments rather than the film maker who is an independent artist in his own right.

    When you watch some of the "adaptations" of the 30s today, they're painful because of their attempts to recreate the book - Cukor's David Copperfield being an example. 80 years later, I don't think anybody ranks that film in Cukor's own personal top 10.

    And personally I feel like cringing when I hear lines from the book repeated in the film to please the audience - Eg: "Barkis is willin'" or Micawber's "Something will turn up". It smacks of a lack of originality.

    Moviemakers shouldn't be straitlaced by the expectations of a very small proportion of their audience who'd have read the book.
    The idea ought to be to leave their own mark. Today, the number of people who've seen Dodsworth the film is many many times the number who've read Sinclair Lewis' novel from cover to cover.

    Also, sometimes an author's reputation can weigh films down. None of the Dickens films are too special. In contrast take a film like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - that's a great example of a magnum opus of British cinema created by a pair of film makers who relied on an unsubstantial cartoon strip as their "literary" inspiration! Now that's originality.

  11. Have read all the four books in question. Waiting for the surprises the movies will bring :)

  12. since we are talking about adaptations, over the years, i have realized that shawshank redemption too could be a case of bad adaptation. i have just seen the film not read the book. but lines like, Life is a good thing my friend, can work in books but in films when you see human beings delivering such lines, you just wish that the director should have avoided such an obvious and melodramatic line for visual medium. Another instance was that dialogues, "Tim was here and so was Red" again works very well on paper but in film, i am not sure.

  13. Excited about these adaptations even though I haven't read Life of Pi and didn't like Reluctant Fundamentalist.

    I think bad books make good movies and good books are adapted into poor movies (of course with lots of exceptions). I also think short stories, novellas or small part of long story makes a good adaptation rather than a full story. Maybe this is because, a good amount of juice has already been squeezed out of an idea by a good long book. On the other hand, a short average book may just provide the right inspiration to a film maker to expand upon.

    P.s - Thanks for reminding me about the adaptation of Cloud Atlas. Had heard about that at the start of the year and have been waiting for it since. Am curious how the director will treat the matter.

  14. I have always been plagued by these questions, especially like the ones you ask about how the first person narrative of the reluctant fundamentalist can be adapted. I also agree with you about assessing a film against what the medium can best offer. In this connection, one of my most satisfying experiences was reading and watching the film 'remains of the day'. While reading the book, I thought it was impossible to adapt it into a movie. When I saw the movie, I was surprised by the ingenuity and the interpretation. For the first time in my life, I understood why directors have wanted to adapt, and what unique purpose it can serve. In the case of remains of the day, there were lots of things that a first person narrator could not say, but a movie's plot could. A true adaptation actually takes something from one medium and completes it using another. All mediums have limitations, but adaptations provide the 3rd dimension to a 2d picture. Have you seen/read remains of the day?