IN A BEAUTIFULLY performed scene from the first episode of Mira Nair’s BBC miniseries A Suitable Boy (adapted from Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel of the same name), we see young Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), a university student circa 1951, gently disagreeing with her English professor—a pompous, portly man dubbed ‘the great white whale’ by Lata’s brother-in-law Pran, who teaches in the same department. Lata has just turned in a paper on James Joyce for a class on ‘British Masters of the 20th Century’; her professor wants her to choose a different subject since Joyce is not on the syllabus. ‘Apart from everything else,’ the professor snickers, ‘James Joyce is Irish.’ Lata retorts that TS Eliot is on the syllabus despite being an American. ‘TS Eliot is a great writer,’ the professor says, horrified at the dissent. ‘And Joyce is not a writer young ladies should be reading at all!’
This short exchange, by itself, tells us so many things about 1950s India (including and especially north India, where Lata’s story is unfolding): the education system’s colonial hangover, the way women’s lives are policed and the unmistakable whiff of Victorian morality. It’s a reminder of the strengths of literary fiction—the way a skilled practitioner like Seth can, with a few quick brushstrokes, cover several intersecting sociological themes at once.
A Suitable Boy has been adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies, who is a British favourite when it comes to literary adaptations (Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’ sDiary and so on). It’s one of several high-profile adaptations of literary fiction 2020 has seen—a roster that includes bestsellers like Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker winner The Luminaries, Sally Rooney’s Booker-longlisted 2018 novel Normal People, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, Jane Austen’s Emma and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
Among these, it could be argued that A Suitable Boy and The Luminaries had the hardest tasks at hand: these are massive books—doorstoppers, really. To condense the 1,500-odd pages of the former and the 850-odd pages of the latter into six tight hour-long episodes is no mean feat. And the two shows go about their business very differently.
A Suitable Boy, of course, resembles the great novels of previous centuries (think Tolstoy, Austen, Trollope and Dickens) in its sweep and scale—Seth follows four interconnected families (the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis and the Khans) across the early 1950s, in a wide-ranging tale involving forbidden love, Hindu-Muslim conflict, the politics of the Nehru era and even a fascinating little arc on India’s early forays into industrial growth. The book’s two protagonists, Lata Mehra and Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khattar), are both involved in doomed romances: Lata is falling in love with Kabir Durrani, a dashing history student in her college, while Maan is besotted with the much older Saeeda Bai (Tabu, in yet another outstanding performance). Kabir is ‘unsuitable’ because he is a Muslim man; Saeeda doubly so because she is a tawaif.
Davies and Nair condense entire sections of the book in fast-moving, well-chosen bits of dialogue, taking care to maintain some of the most recognisable ones verbatim, like the book’s iconic opening line, spoken by Lata’s mother Rupa Mehra: “You too will marry a boy I choose.” There’s also a distinct emphasis on approachability—some of the novel’s darker scenes (like an intoxicated Maan pawing his sister-in-law on Holi, part of the novel’s first chapter) have been axed from the screenplay. In other words, this is a classically ‘faithful’ adaptation of the novel, helped in no small measure by some inspired casting choices, like the always-dependable Aamir Bashir as the genteel Nawab of Baitar, a family friend of the Kapoors.
By the time the second episode (which aired recently) ends, Ishan Khattar comes into his own as Maan Kapoor. To hold one’s own opposite Tabu is an impressive feat for a young actor. Look out, also, for a brief exchange with his father Praan (Ram Kapoor) in the second episode, where he’s both naive and conniving at the same time.
The Luminaries, which was added on Netflix last month, takes a diametrically opposite approach to adaptation. How much does one change the source text, while adapting a massive novel into a mini-series — what is an acceptable amount of divergence? Can you change the beginning and the end? How about ‘point of view’ characters, not to mention the protagonist? Can you switch the order of your reveals, so that a deliberately fractured narrative on paper becomes a much more linear one onscreen?
Andrew Davies and Mira Nair condense entire sections of A Suitable Boy in fast-moving, well-chosen bits of dialogue, taking care to maintain some of the most recognizable ones verbatim
Share this on
Remarkably, The Luminaries does all of these things while also somehow preserving—indeed, amplifying—the source text’s key elements. It’s a well-written, superbly shot piece of fantasia sure to win over a new legion of fans for the novel. The 34-year-old Catton has written the screenplay herself, which makes sense given the bulk and formal complexity of the book.
Set during the Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s, the narrative begins with Walter Moody, a British lawyer, chancing upon a council meeting of sorts at the Crown Hotel, even as he heads to Hokitika, a small town on the West Coast of New Zealand. A dozen local men have gathered to discuss a string of recent crimes—a prostitute named Anna Wetherell has tried to end her own life after being suspected to be involved in the disappearance of a wealthy prospector. At the same time, a life-changing amount of gold is discovered in the hut of a down-on-luck drunk. Slowly, steadily, Catton builds upon this foundation to give us a host of meticulously sketched characters, revealing a complex web of murder, conspiracy and intrigue—all ‘hooked’ around a fortune in gold, of course.
The show streamlines the novel’s expansive, digressive storytelling to a large extent. While the book has its male characters on narrative duty for the most part (although there are no first-person chapters, most narrative strands have a clear POV character), the show is told mostly from the perspective of Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson), the prostitute who has a star-crossed romance with the prospector Emery Staines (Himesh Patel). Shortly after being separated from Raines, Wetherell is taken under the wing of Lydia Wells (Eva Green), an innkeeper/madame looking to swindle her husband, Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie), out of the bag of gold he has just returned with after months out in the gold fields. Lydia’s lover, an ex-convict called Francis Carver (Marton Csokas), is helping her in this scheme, contriving to keep Staines occupied in the gold fields even as she grooms Wetherell into becoming her apprentice.
A side-by-side comparison of the book’s and the show’s Hokitika council scenes (which opens the novel, but doesn’t appear in the show until the fifth episode) is revelatory. In the book, this is a classic stage-setting exercise, wherein Catton reveals both the structure and the slow-burning pace of the narrative. We learn, through the book’s opening note, that the plot features 12 ‘stellar’ characters (the 12 men gathered at the Crown Hotel) inspired by the zodiac system, seven ‘planetary’ characters and one stationary, earth-like character (Crosbie Wells) around whose death the plot revolves. The two lovers, Staines and Wetherell, are the ‘luminaries’ of the title, being guided by the sun and the moon, respectively. The 12 stellar characters each display the traditional personality traits of their zodiac sign, and they interact with each other according to the predestined movements of the night sky.
In the show, however, the scene takes place much after we know a fair bit about each of the 12 stellar characters and their respective roles within the Hokitika ecosystem. As for the astrological themes, we’re somewhat familiar (thanks to Lydia Wells being an enthusiast who teaches Wetherell the basics) but it hasn’t quite come to the fore yet. We know that Staines and Wetherell are ‘astral twins’, two people whose fates are intertwined on account of being born in the exact same moment under the exact same sky (by which to say, born not too far from each other). So when Walter Moody sees the 12-member ‘council’ at the Crown Hotel, Catton gives us a descriptive voiceover by Lydia Wells that explains The Luminaries’ astrological underpinnings: ‘Think of the sky as a looking glass. What you see is who you are. Who you are, of course, is no simple thing. Each of us is a living constellation of habits, desires, notions, memories, all shaped by the circumstances of how we’ve lived and what we’ve been through.’ At this point, the camera starts panning to each character one by one, as Wells’ voiceover reveals each of their astrological analogues. ‘Blood: Aries, Money: Taurus, Knowledge: Gemini … .”
IT’S IMPORTANT TO note that a straightforward exposition like this may well have come across as mediocre literature, which is why Catton wrote this very differently in the book. Within the context of a streaming show, however, one designed in part for binge-watching, the scene works as a stunning denouement for themes that were hitherto hinted at but never fully explained. Broadly speaking, this is the strategy Catton the screenwriter favours—she upends the book’s structure, so that the whodunnit parts are evenly distributed across the six episodes, unlike the book where the last 50-odd pages feature a disproportionate amount of plot movement.
Catton is the third young novelist in 2020 to be involved with adapting their own work for streaming. Sally Rooney’s work on the Normal People series has already been well-regarded by audiences and critics. Bestselling American author Brit Bennett signed a seven-figure HBO deal last month, for a miniseries adaptation of her recent novel The Vanishing Half. All three of them are in their 30s. This is an indication of two things: first, of the streaming era’s ever-expanding influence on the world of letters; and second, that no amount of handwringing by purists will change the fact that some of the smartest writers in the world right now are working in TV.