Monday, March 2, 2009

And as for the adaptation?

It's been a week since the Oscars but the need to fully evaluate means that this entry is slightly delayed. Oh well. Still, after finally getting through Salman Rushdie's amazingly long rant on movie adaptations (and wow does somebody hate "Slumdog Millionaire"...), I wanted to add a few cents. Rushdie's ramble ends so:

Whole societies can lose their way through a process of bad adaptation. Striving to save themselves, they can oppress others. Hoping to defend themselves, they can damage the very liberties they believed to be under attack. Claiming to defend freedom, they can make themselves and others less free. Or, seeking to calm the violent hotheads in their midst, societies can try to appease them, and so give the violent hotheads the notion that their violence and hotheadedness is effective. Wishing to create better understanding between peoples, they can seek to prevent the expression of opinions unpalatable to some of their members, and so immediately make others even angrier than they were before.

Societies in motion, at a time of rapid change such as the present day, succeed, as all good adaptations do, by knowing what is essential, what cannot be compromised, what all their citizens must accept as the price of membership. For many years now, I'm sorry to say, we have lived through an era of bad social adaptations, of appeasements and surrenders on the one hand, of arrogant excesses and coercions on the other.

We can only hope that the worst is over, and that better movies, better musicals and better times lie ahead.

And these are the last three paragraphs (even the ending feels a bit long). Still, if someone has a lot of time to burn, go ahead and read the whole thing. It's interesting... in a boring way. That's not to say Rushdie doesn't say interesting and relevant things, though many have argued that his points are moot. Over at Read Street, Dave Rosenthal said, regarding similar quotes (made before the Guardian rant was published) by Rushdie:

It's fiction, remember? I do expect realistic fiction to be grounded -- I wouldn't want Puff the Magic Dragon to appear in Slumdog. But movie adapters get some license to keep the story moving. The criticisms leveled by Rushdie (at least those noted by the AJC) are so minor that they don't bother me -- not nearly as much as the depiction of Mumbai's sprawling slums.

Setting aside Rushdie's complaints about "Slumdog Millionaire" specifically, there are interesting points to be made in his 9 paged "article". Some wonderful works of art have emerged from adapting other works of art. Meanwhile, there are many, many cases where the adaptation butchered the original piece on which it was based. Rushdie is right to complain about recent adaptations on that count. It's a strange situation when a number of the more prolific and hyped movies of the decade are adaptations, whether from books, comics, or other movies.

Still, while numerous terrible movies have been made off of books, there are a lot of crowning jewels. I, for instance, am a big fan of "The Princess Bride", in book form and in movie form. I enjoy each immensely, recommend both, and find that the movie by no means ruins the book, even if it leaves out a lot of the quirkiness of the masterfully written book. It makes up for it by bringing its own charm, flair and personality.

Then there are books that have been "covered" so many times that it's gotten boring. Take "Pride and Prejudice", for instance. A classic example. The first adaptation, from 1940, is nothing like the book. Rich with anachronisms (the costumes are apparently the same from "Gone With the Wind" - speaking of movie adaptations...) and major character changes (Lady Catherine is nice), it's an example of an adaptation that actually changed the book. Then you watch the miniseries and you see something a little more realistic. The miniseries is a good adaptation - the 1940 version is not.

There are many examples where the adaptation is better known than the original ("Princess Bride" comes to mind again). Or where the adaptation is actually better than the original (Rushdie offers "Lord of the Rings" as an example for this). But rarely does a movie adaptation truly ruin the original. It'll raise awareness, yes, and if it's terrible, may keep potential readers away, but it rarely (if ever) makes those who have enjoyed it regret that feeling. Rushdie makes a few interesting, scattered points but sifting through this mess of a rant is a bit of a time-waster. And the adaptation debate will go on for a long time. Personally, I hope for an age where books have time to settle before they're instantly snapped for the big screen. I don't want to always feel rushed to read a book simply because four months after publication, it's already got a version out in theaters.


  1. oh...that IS a rant for sure. Looks like he doesn't like most of the adaptions.
    The article would have been more effective if it was shortened.

    But i do agree a bit on his take on Slumdog M.
    Specifically when he says that Boyle made this movie coz he knew nothing about India. I mean hello? I have read many over the top positive reviews. I like the movie but I don't think it's that great either.

    I think even if there are many bad adaptations, they do raise an awareness in the original work.

  2. I will never forgive the people who made a Dune, a great book, into a travesty of a movie. But as you said, that does not diminish the book itself; in a perverse way it increases its standing as a work of art.
    The big screen has a certain power, and Slumdog's sweeping panorama of Mumbai's slums is one I will remember for a long time. I haven't read Q&A, the book that became Slumdog, but I doubt it could have that same impact, even if it is excellent in its own right.
    p.s. For another chilling look at Mumbai's slums, check out, a great piece of online reporting.


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