Speaking Volumes: Adaptations

(First published in ‘Speaking Volumes’, Business Standard, June 14, 2005

Most book purists would agree with Charlie Kaufman on the subject of turning a book into a film: “I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcome obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that, it just isn’t.”

But as most film lovers know, Charlie Kaufman, who struggles so hard to turn a novel about flowers, heavy with interior monologues, into a film is a character who wasn’t even in the original book that was turned into Adaptation. It’s this way: Adaptation was meta enough to satisfy the most carping of critics, being a film called Adaptation about turning a (genuine) book called The Orchid Thief by Susan Orleans into a (never made, except in the film about the film of the book) film called The Orchid Thief.

Charlie Kaufman was an invention of film, if you like: the tormented screenwriter whose desperate search for a way to turn an internally driven, beautifully written novel into 120 pages of screenplay while avoiding action-packed cinematic clichés leads him to pursue the novelist into an action-packed final sequence. Nicely ironic, and three years after it was made, Adaptation is still something of a cult favourite on the circuit.

Kaufman’s grumble–“The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that, it just isn’t”—may be voiced by a character of the cinematic world, but it’s the book lover’s grouse against film adaptations to a tee. What happens when book meets film? And why do we care so much?

Let’s start with the assumption that there are two kinds of book purists. The first kind is more puritan than purist, the sort who has “Do not tamper with the text” written on his heart. If you love books, shun the book puritan: his mind is closed to the idea that every reader brings her own interpretation to any great work of fiction, and that sometimes the best readers are the most creative interpreters. Anthony Minghella’s English Patient is not Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient ; it doesn’t follow the book slavishly, but neither does it distort the book. Because Minghella read and understood the book so well, he was free to translate his notion of it onto celluloid.

As the director of the film, he worked roughly on the same lines that Gregory Rabassa does when he’s translating the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Rabassa doesn’t reproduce Garcia Marquez’s text in another language; his method is to internalise the novel and then to virtually rewrite the book all over again.

To some extent, this is what directors as different as Kurosawa and, at another level, Vishal Bhardwaj have done with Shakespeare’s Macbeth . I’ve seen some productions—chiefly theatrical, not film–of Macbeth that suffer because they’re obsessed with the need to be faithful to the text to the point where they stifle the play. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood works in part because he saw clearly how bringing the Scottish play to medieval Japan might deepen his personal reading of the play. And Bhardwaj’s Maqbool is a brilliant reinterpretation because he understood how easily a play about kingship, treachery and hubris could be adapted if it was set in the Mumbai underworld.

Fidelity to the text can only take you so far. There’s a reason why recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played as it would have been on the instruments of the time are curiosities. The “original, authentic” way grates on our modern ears, now that we’ve grown used to a different reading of the music. Some theatres do performances of Shakespeare, Marlowe and company in the style of the era in which they wrote the plays; again, these are far more satisfying as literary history than as theatre. For works to remain classic, each generation needs to continue interpreting them in different ways.

That disposes of the book puritan: but the purist is a different matter. The book purist is usually open to wide-ranging, even iconoclastic, interpretations of the books that matter to him—and the emphasis here is firmly on books that do matter in themselves, and how well the interpretation works. Gurinder Chaddha, for instance, had a good thing going when she decided to remake Pride and Prejudice and set it in contemporary India, where Austen’s interest in the politics of arranged marriages and property settlements is keenly shared by thousands of families. It’s another matter that she didn’t do it very well, producing a film that was deeply tedious by both Bollywood and Hollywood standards.

On the other hand, Coppola did Mario Puzo a favour with The Godfather trilogy, by lifting a decent, fast-paced, unusual bestseller into the ranks of art with his cinematic interpretation—his frames packed far more punch, frankly, than Puzo’s workmanlike prose.

Some books lend themselves more easily to film because they carry relatively little baggage. What if the film versions of The Namesake , based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, and The Mistress of Spices , based on Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s book, aren’t “good” adaptations? I probably wouldn’t carp much: neither book means as much to me as The Hours , Michael Cunningham’s novel. I watched the film version with enjoyment—and great relief because I loved both The Hours and the book that inspired it, Mrs Dalloway , so a bad adaptation could have wrecked two books for me.

But Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas was soap opera going for baroque with a vengeance, held together by torn shreds of Sharatchandra’s plot. Like many fans of the book and at least one of the previous film versions of Devdas , I was incensed at Bhansali’s production because the book he claimed to have based his film on had all but vanished under the weight of his lavish sets and his larger-than-life melodrama.

With Sharatchandra’s Parineeta, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s adaptation takes sweeping liberties with text and time, filling out one character’s story in intricate detail where the text had nothing but silence, and shifting the scene from turn-of-century Bengal to 1960s Bengal. But Sharatchandra’s original novel was a relatively slight, mannered work, one of those books that still enjoys a readership without inspiring the kind of devotion and loyalty that a work like Srikanta or Devdas does. It’s a novel where so much is implied in so many absences that it offers a blank canvas to the right director, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s retelling is refreshing in its own right. The book isn’t like that: but it might have been.


  1. I agree with most of this. Just one thing, Susan Orleans’ book The Orchid Thief in the movie Adaptation and in reality was not a novel. It was a non-fiction book about a real-life orchid poacher.That was one of the chief problems the character Kaufman was faced with.The idea of a film without a narrative that is not a documentary. Essentially a ‘fictional’ adaptation of a work of non-fiction.

  2. Letterhead, Alok, my apologies! I have no excuse because I read the original non-fiction work, so I can’t even claim I didn’t know it was a novel… Thanks for pointing this out, cheers, nsr

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