The difficult and often distortive experiment of making movies of books
Shaikh Ayaz | 07 Feb, 2013
The difficult and often distortive experiment of making movies of books
Like Midnight’s Children’s legion of admirers, music composer Ram Sampath approached its film version with trepidation. “Somewhere, I felt like protecting the book in my mind,” says Sampath, “because the internal dialogue you have with a book is such a personal thing.”
Often ‘disappointed’ with screen versions of books, writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar quips in Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Talking Films: “When you read, you are the director, cameraman and editor. So obviously you will like your own film better.”
Many readers face the same dilemma when their favourite work of literature migrates to cinema, the question inevitably arising: ‘Is the book better than the film?’
Recently, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children opened—against the backdrop of that question—to a divided house, leaving many critics ‘underwhelmed’. The stock grouse being, the film doesn’t do justice to the book.
For Indian readers/viewers, this seems just the beginning of the eternal ‘book versus film’ debate, as they brace themselves for a rather wide spread based on bestsellers: from The Great Gatsby and The Reluctant Fundamentalist to Kai Po Che and 2 States.
Let’s start with Midnight’s Children. Anyone who has read it would know that it’s a vivid novel, more than 600 pages long, spanning decades and generations. It is festooned with a colourful cast of characters. At its base is the twin destiny of its two protagonists, Saleem Sinai and India, the symbolic doppelganger with which he shares his moment of birth. And then, there is magical realism. Many—including Satyajit Ray—felt it was unfilmable because of the obvious impossibility of compression. First published in 1981, the book has since won every imaginable prize in the literary world, including the Booker of Bookers. Yet, it was only four years ago that Deepa Mehta rose to the challenge of turning it into a film. Rushdie’s past endeavours to transfer it both to TV and cinema had borne little result. Every time ‘Project Midnight’s Children’ was to take off, it would crash for artistic, political or financial reasons. Broken, and at the end of his tether, Rushdie summarised the struggle in a 1999 essay titled ‘Adapting Midnight’s Children’ thus: ‘The story of a failure, then.’
Midnight’s Children is not an odd case out. Ang Lee took as many years to muster the courage to spin Yann Martel’s Life of Pi into a Turner seascape. When Lee first read Martel’s novel, he thought the material film-resistant. “Kid, water, big special effects, animals—and they have to be in a small boat on water. It seemed to be a filmmaker’s every nightmare,” Lee, who has long turned to books for fodder, told The Telegraph.
Filming novels presents both creative and logistic challenges. One conflict is whether to stay faithful to the book or reinterpret it. Filmmaker Shyam Benegal, whose early works, Bhumika, Junoon, Mandi and Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda, were taken from books and short stories, says each film had its own peculiar problem. Take Junoon, the 1978 film based on Ruskin Bond’s A Flight of Pigeons, which Benegal first read in a Bombay periodical. Since it was a short story, it allowed the filmmaker a chance to expand it with fictional details. The excitement of telling the story set around the Indian rebellion of 1857 led him to Shahjahanpur to carry out research. “My interest was two-fold,” says Benegal, “One was Gone with the Wind kind of period romance between an Indian man and an Anglo-Indian girl. And the other, relations between various kinds of Indians and Britons.”
Benegal waited a decade before he could adapt Dharamvir Bharati’s Hindi novel Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda, the story of a man and his three loves. He finally made it in 1992. “The fascinating thing is that the protagonist’s relationships with the women vary from pubescence and adolescence to youth, and you have to do justice to every story. That was a complex balance to achieve.”
Each director has his/her own way of working through the novel. Benegal says that to understand the books-to-movies process, it is imperative to understand the basic difference between the two mediums. “Everybody who sees the film sees the same film and has the same references and context. But when you read a book, the context you create is on the basis of your experience and imagination.”
The job of a good filmmaker, then, is to “objectivise what otherwise a reader’s subjective imagination brings into the process of reading a book”.
Successful adaptations are those that manage to “convey the spirit and soul” of the novel, attests Sooni Taraporevala, screenwriter for The Namesake and Such a Long Journey. “Most times, that means not following the text ‘faithfully’ and ‘literally’, but coming up with creative ways to use the strengths of the medium of film,” she says. While adapting The Namesake, the biggest challenge was to “find ways to make the interior life of characters manifest outwardly in their actions”.
Citing Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy as the most successful attempt yet at adaptation in Indian cinema, Benegal says, “Even Charulata, for instance. Mr Ray was an expert at taking a literary work and doing it his way.” In the Apu trilogy, Ray remained true to the fabric of Bibhutibhushan Bengali novels. In several interviews, the filmmaker has attributed the trilogy’s famous lyrical and mystical qualities to Bandopadhyay’s novels.
Ray has earlier spoken of how Pather Panchali, the first of the Apu series, had no full script and most of the dialogue came from the novel. In Benegal’s documentary titled Satyajit Ray, Ray talks about how he gleaned “very cinematic” details from Bandopadhyay’s novels. “You have this family,” he says, describing a scene, “the father goes insane and it’s impossible to keep him at home.
The family decides to leave him somewhere else. Son, young boy and a group of elders take this mad man a couple of miles away and leave him behind the bush. A packet of beedis in his hand and a match-box. The boy who feels for the father suddenly turns around, on the way back, and finds smoke coming out from behind the bush. That sort of thing comes often from literature—and from Bibhutibhushan. I have used this kind of detail so that I do not have to use spoken words, to be as expressive as possible through action, objects…”
“Bibhutibhushan’s novels are big, and go in all direction,” says Benegal. “Mr Ray decided to take what he wanted,” he adds.
In Ray’s case, Bibhutibhushan was not alive to see his work transferred to film. Usually, the author-filmmaker relationship is not always amiable. Stanley Kubrick was rather notorious in this department. He often attracted the ire of authors who accused him of distorting their material. For Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov sent him a 400-page typed script. Unconvinced, Kubrick returned it saying it was too long and would make for a seven-hour film. A few months later, Nabokov delivered an abridged version. In the end, Kubrick rewrote it anyway—his way.
“Kubrick’s Lolita is anti-Nabokov,” says Sampath. Kubrick’s work is ranked alongside that of other great American auteurs, with his adaptations enjoying an independent artistic existence. Yet, Stephen King refused to buy his greatness, hating him for debasing The Shining. “Too cold,” King told The Paris Review. “No sense of emotional investment in the family whatsoever on his part.”
Anthony Burgess upbraided Kubrick for making A Clockwork Orange more sexual than cerebral. “The book I am best known for,” said Burgess, “or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate. The film made it easy for readers to misunderstand what it was about. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation.”
Of course, where authors see misinterpretation, Kubrick lovers see the ‘Kubrick’ stamp. Closer home, when RK Narayan’s The Guide was turned into a film by Vijay Anand, the novelist hardly foresaw a great film in the making. In an essay titled ‘Misguided Guide’, Narayan expressed his anguish over glaring omissions, including the decision to abolish Malgudi altogether, uprooting Rosie’s character from her South Indian milieu to Rajasthan, and alterations in the climax. When Indira Gandhi saw the film at a special preview, she told Narayan, “Why should they have dragged the story all over as if it were a travelogue?” Incidentally, Vijay Anand’s Guide is prized among its fans precisely for its so-called ‘travelogue’, its locales, shot-taking and song picturisations that Gandhi objected to.
Author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi admits that serious authors are wary of filmfolk. But are authors required on the sets at all? He wonders. “My friend, writer John Berendt, reminded me that when Clint Eastwood adapted his book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, his contribution was to watch the film when it hit the screens. This might be wise counsel for all writers.”
Past evidence suggests that when authors get personally involved, enlisting a filmmaker of their choice for the job, the journey of page-to-picture becomes an enjoyable ride. It also helps if the writer of the original work contributes to the script. “The only person who could have sent us the screenplay was Mr Rushdie himself,” says Soha Ali Khan, Midnight’s Children’s Jamila Singer.
Little wonder then that the film has Rushdie’s imprimatur. His enthusiastic participation reminds one of Jhumpa Lahiri, who approved of Mira Nair’s 2006 version of The Namesake, cheerfully doing press with her director. Further back in time, Harper Lee endorsed the screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird as a “work of art”.
Cinema is a relatively new medium compared to the centuries-old tradition of books. But over the years it has thrown up many surprises, turning literary classics into movie masterpieces. In one respect, a good adaptation is not just a visual version of a book but an autonomous work of literature. David Lean’s Great Expectations is a case in point, a truly cinematic elevation of the Dickens classic. Given such examples, does a good film enhance the book’s appeal? “One doesn’t expect a literal translation of the written work: a direct copy, as Jonathan Demme did of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is a kind of mediocrity disguised as adulation,” says Shanghvi, adding, “But to take a novel and pay it fond homage, to broaden its extant joys, to flesh out its visual strengths is the job of the filmmaker.” However, author Aatish Taseer doesn’t quite agree: “The best novels don’t need movies to augment them. But it is true that sometimes shabby novels benefit greatly from movie adaptations. I am thinking specifically of that novel whose name is now lost to us, but will from here on and forever be known as Slumdog Millionaire [Vikas Swarup’s Q&A].” Shanghvi brings up Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County, which “takes a terrible book and makes a moving account”.
“We have enough terrible books in India, so let’s at least make some decent films out of them. If you are handed a sow’s ear, make a purse,” says Shanghvi.
Raju Hirani did exactly that with 3 Idiots, transforming Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone (one critic called it fast-food literature) into a blockbuster of monstrous proportions. Since then, Bhagat has become a go-to source for Bollywood. Though he enjoys wide success, his books are routinely slammed as ‘low-brow’, with critics pointing to an absence of literary voice in his writing. Literary commentators (read: elitists who read Naipaul— who, by the way, wrote in his 1998 essay ‘Reading and Writing’: ‘And I have to wonder now whether the talent that once went into imaginative literature didn’t in this century go into the first fifty years of glorious cinema’) think he is a shallow scriptwriter passing for a novelist.
It is interesting to note that while VS Naipaul, so great a writer, has proved utterly useless to cinema (barring The Mystic Masseur, none of his books have inspired films), Chetan Bhagat has not only proved unusually useful, but also successful.
“Chetan is an engaging storyteller. His characters are young and brimming with hope, and his books are about love and relationships, themes that immediately lend to cinema,” says Amar Butala, creative director, Disney UTV Studios, which is producing Kai Po Che, translated from Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of My Life.
Many reckon that the success of Chetan Bhagat spells a low point for Indian cinema, shocking proof of its literary culture vanishing further away from the world of Premchands and Tagores. Sampath argues that if Bollywood is reading Chetan Bhagat, it says more about Bollywood’s reading culture than his writing skills.
“I see a strange dichotomy there,” says Sampath, “I often meet people in my field who are well-read. But unfortunately, their reading informs neither their work nor aesthetics.” However, Sampath is more worried that a weak literary culture is especially affecting Hindi film music, a unique characteristic that separates it from cinema elsewhere in the world.
“A lot of our great literary adaptations—Pather Panchali or Guide—had equally great music,” he says. “Our songs, by and large, are situational and situation is a literary creation. Situation is nothing but writing—so, if the writing is sloppy, how can you expect meaningful songs? Why is it that we haven’t been able to produce another Gulzar or Javed Akhtar?”
Shanghvi agrees that there is nothing to make of Bollywood’s adaptation culture. “Jaya Bachchan recently reminded me that the generation of actors and directors she came out of was influenced largely by literature. This made me question: ‘What and who are the influences for directors today? The internet?’ You have to be kidding,” he says. Questioning the very future of literary adaptations, Taseer says that ‘good books’ must have a lasting hold on the imagination of readers at large for them to be adapted and re-adapted. “I don’t know if men like Premchand continue to have that influence.”
“I fear, sadly,” says Taseer, “that the future belongs much more to Chetan Bhagat.”