Monday, December 05, 2005

Movies from books..

One of my favourite pet peeves - a bad film translation of a book.

If the movie is admittedly 'loosely' based on a book, and the filmmaker takes the liberty of tweaking the actual story line, either by, say changing some broad events or simply adding some characters, and I'm mentally prepared to see just another movie without the expectations of seeing the film of the book, then the peeve factor doesn't arise. Like for example, the recent adaptation of Great Expectation where Ethan Hawke played Pip and Uma Thurman played Estella - it played the Victorian storyline but it was set in contemporary America. Or, Baz Luhrmann's outrageous but brilliant Romeo and Juliet, which had the original Shakespearean dialogue, but was again, set in modern times (and had Baz Luhrmann's eccentric and colourful style written all over it).

My peeve is more with filmmakers supposedly making or trying to make an original adaptation, but ending up murdering the book. Mira Nair made a fairly bold attempt at trying to recreate Vanity Fair, but made a mess of it. Not a big mess, but a mess nonetheless. Gosh, Becky from the movie was anything but like Becky from the book! Oh, and my favourite duckie - Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas. This movie was a complete joke, and Bhansali had stabbed the original novel 46 times in the chest and back. I mean, compared to Devdas, Vanity Fair was excellent. I had given in to the hype surrounding Devdas and had taken a lot of trouble to ensure that I offered myself a great cinematic experience from a film that was made by a filmmaker who also made a very pleasing Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Didn't go to the theatre when I was offered a free ticket from somewhere, instead, took pains to read the fat novel first to double the pleasure. Then I finally shoved my way through a packed cinema in extreme heat, alone, after buying a ticket from a huge queue - and all i ended up getting was the worst filmic experience of my life, coupled with insect bites all over my feet (nah, not those multiplexes..I went to a normal desi cinema hall). While both Nair and Bhansali failed to capture the original essence of the respective books they filmed, Nair still did a commendable job in catching an overall feel of society of that time. The art direction was excellent, and visual experience great. I give her 9 out of 10 on that count. However, the least said about Devdas, the better. Was Bengali society like how Bhansali showed? Heck, no. The dude got confused a bit, and he North-Indianised Bengali society. The overal value of his production was no better than those dime a dozen bad attempts at opulent saas-bahu soap operas, set in mahals and all.

Besides catching up on Devdas-the-book before going to watch Devdas the movie, I'd repeated this drill many times on other books and films as well, and more often than not, got disappointed by the lack of condensation between the two.

I'd like to mention here, whilst I disdainfully deigned all these bad book translations to movie, much of it sprang from partial ignorance. My views of good and bad were a bit too simplistic, without much insight or appreciation of the nuances of filmmaking and scriptwriting. Besides, my views were one-tracked - if a movie messed with the original flavour of the book, the movie was bad as far as I was concerned. Period.

It was while reading up Shyam Benegal's views the other day in an editorial that I became more congnizant of the nuances and restrictions that filmmakers face while converting books, and actually began to think somewhat objectively about the matter. In a summation, he opines that books which are deep rooted in literalism are difficult to film, and putting audio visual perceptions into metaphors and symbolisms is tough. Film tools and fiction tools being different, its difficult to coalesce a sense of uniformity into the two. E.g, potboilers, and other fiction with a high content of descriptive events are easier to film. Hence we have so many John Grisham, Robert Ludlum and Charles Dickens movies, while a Marquez, Rushdie or Joyce book, which feature intellectual debate, internal struggles, metaphors, consciousness and ephiphanies would be extremly difficult to put on screen. I'd just disagree with him on one point - he finds Death of Venice a brilliant adaptation of the book, while I don't personally, and this I am saying using his own logic and insight.

One great movie adaptation over the top of my head from what I consider to be a difficult book to film is Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. The loosely related choppy pieces of timeline are distracting in the movie, fragments halt at one point and picks up somewhere else - in another era, due to which the flow of association gets somewhat disturbed, but they all come together at the end, interwoven with the bombing of Dresden event as a central recurrent theme. The movie evokes the same thoughts and black humour the book does, and anyone who has read the book and chuckled, would surely love the movie too.

But all said and done, a bad movie is a bad movie - it would still peeve me. While Slaughterhouse Five was great, Vonnegut's other book that was filmed, Breakfast of Champions was a complete disaster. And I couldn't have been more bored than when I was watching Battlefield Earth, the sci-fi novel by the founder of Scientology (forgetting his name).

I'll conclude with a book translation that is flashing in my mind most strongly at the moment. To kill a Mocking Bird. Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus Finch continues to haunt me for putting flesh and bone to a very remarkable character. His character, other complex semi-protagonists, the main themes - hatred, innocence, innocence lost and compassion, each needed to come out through the childish perceptions of a little girl. Easier said than done from a cinematic angle, but done seamlessly here. The filmmakers presented the essence of the book through the eyes of the child more eloquently than the writer Harper lee had done himself with words and metaphors. Needless to mention since you must have guessed already, this is one of my favourite movies of all times! :)

ps: most of the above examples were those that
randomly came to my head at that particular point
of writing. Not necessarily my best and worst lists.


Id it is said...

I agree with you. The poignancy of the piece, be it its theme or the rendition of it, is often lost in filmaking. There may be valid reason for that happening as you suggest, but then why make the film at all? Look at what Oliver Stone, a well respected filmmaker, did to 'Alexander', or how a breathtakingly beautiful Keira Knightely as Elizabeth in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is going to tip the balance in favor of 'beauty', quite the opposite of what Austen hoped to do via her novels; raise respect for female intelligence with or without beauty.
Film makers should leave some books alone!

Red said...

On the subject of movie adaptations the BBC adaption of Pride and Prejudice is truly brilliant (the one with Colin Firth and whatshername).

Also, Ray's version of Pather Panchali was stunning. A lot of Bengali cinema actually manages to translate literature on the screen quite well. Is it because of the brilliant of the film maker or a greater familiarity with literature amongst the audience. On the average Bengali's read vernacular literature far more than the average North Indian reads his Mahadevi Verma.

Red said...

Also, the worst movie translation has to be Bride and Prejudice. Horrible, simply horrible

Tamanna said...

I agree. To kill a mocking bird is my all-time favourite too! I fell in love with greg peck in this movie. Exact adaptation of the book and more than that. The kids also were well chosen.
Generally movie adaptations dont do justice to the books cos they cant compete with one's imagination. LOTR and HP series were a disappointment to me.
I found Life is beautiful, the movie more interesting than the book.
Well, waiting to watch a good movie now..

nandi23 said...

The crucible was okay enough wasn't it?