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Books on the Big Screen

2012 may well go down as the year when several highbrow literary works were translated onto celluloid, writes Anirudh Bhattacharyya.

books Updated: Oct 07, 2012 01:06 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times
Toronto International Film Festival,hindustan times,news

The Toronto International Film Festival’s principal award isn’t decided by a jury, but rather by the audience. The 2012 festival saw Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O Russell, capture the People’s Choice Award. The first runner-up was Ben Affleck’s Argo. Interestingly, both films are based on books. Silver Linings is based on a 2008 novel by US author Matthew Quick, while Argo is loosely adapted from the memoirs of ex-CIA operative Tony Mendez.

Books have always been adapted into movies, but 2012 may be considered the year literary adaptations of complex works are garnering even more screen time and higher visibility.

This profusion of books on film became the topic of internal discussion even among TIFF’s programmers. One among them, Jane Schoettle, pointed out, “Literature is always a fantastic source, but this year there has been quite more than usual.” A staggering 58 films at TIFF, nearly a fifth of the programme, were literary adaptations and, of those, 11 were high-profile gala presentations.

On September 28, the New York Film Festival showcased as its opening night film yet another literary novel-become-film in Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi — based on Canadian author Yann Martel’s original novel.

Of course, literary merit alone wasn’t the reason for Life Of Pi highlighting the 50th NYFF, which is organised by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. As its programme director Richard Pena explained, the festival’s “standard bearer for that year” was “widely accessible” to the opening night audience and “moreover represented a beautiful example of a major filmmaker taking on and mastering new technologies — CGI, 3D.”

One of the reasons books are popular with Hollywood, and getting more so, is commercial considerations amid a period of box office doldrums. As Schoettle said, “Given the film production climate, there’s always interest. Books, in general, are well known already.” Also filmmakers are drawn to “proven stories that have a universality about them”. Pena echoed that view though he didn’t quite feel viewers are living through a time of an increasing number of literary adaptations, as he said, “Adapting books carries a marketing advantage, especially when a book has been successful.”

There are always the classics with umpteen iterations like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Shakespeare: The Avengers director Joss Whedon brought his take on Much Ado About Nothing to Toronto. Or bestsellers that easily transit to blockbusters like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, The Twilight Saga or The Hunger Games. EL James’ publishing industry sensation, the 50 Shades trilogy, is also on its way to a film production.

More challenging, though, is taking literary fiction to the screen, for these are not quite made for celluloid.

For instance, Life Of Pi is a book about the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, Pi Patel, and his journey on a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger, a hyena, an orang utan and a zebra. Life Of Pi would probably be categorised as an extremely difficult book to adapt. Toronto saw quite of these challenging novels including Cloud Atlas, a chronology defying novel, made by the Wachowski siblings of Matrix renown. Two Indian-origin directors helmed projects based on ‘unfilmable’ books: Deepa Mehta with Salman Rushdie’s epic Midnight’s Children and Mira Nair’s reimagining of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Rushdie co-wrote the sceenplay for Midnight’s Children, with the result it stays very true to its source material. As director Mehta said, “Salman has often said that the book was his love letter to India. I think the film reflects that love.” Of course, the film does focus on Mehta’s vision of the book, which takes some cinematic licence with the text but remains immediately familiar for those who have read it.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, however, differs from the book. It proved quite a challenge for the director, who has earlier made films based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Nair said, “This adaptation from a book was possibly the most complicated I’ve ever been involved with .”

The screenplay was written by Hollywood veteran William Wheeler, while author Mohsin Hamid is credited with the “screen story”. Nair said of the movie, “We invented the kidnapping, we invented the clock ticking over a man’s head. Because I wanted it very much to be a thriller, to be something that kept you at the edge of your seat.”

This will be a year where film audiences will see more than their fair share of pages morph to frames, much of it from highbrow literature that they normally would not have bothered to read.

First Published: Oct 06, 2012 22:48 IST