Nicholas Shakespeare: The difference between a novel and a film is that of a donkey and a carrot
A high-powered panel that included Amy Tan, Micheal Ondatjee, Tom Stoppard and Mira Nair came up with interesting insights on adapting novels for cinema during a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival.JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 28, 2018 12:52 IST
When Anthony Minghella wanted to adapt Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning The English Patient for the screen, he was presented with a strange problem. The central romance in the book goes back and forth in time, and gives the classic its distinctive character. But Minghella feared, and Ondaatje agreed, that this lack of chronology would be far too complex for a film.
In the end, the makers agreed to make the romance linear. “Otherwise, the audience would get lost. That kind of simplification was necessary,” the Sri Lankan author told the audience at a lively session on adaptations that also featured Amy Tan, Mira Nair, Nicholas Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard.
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Filmmaker Mira Nair had a similar experience when she adapted Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake for a film of the same name in 2006. She said she had forged a bond with the book while reading it and felt united with the central character by the shared experience of burying a parent. “I felt I had a sister in the world.”
But she too modified the book for the screen. In the book, more than half the book is about the protagonist Gogol Ganguli and his struggles to adapt to an alien culture in the United States. Nair, however, felt more strongly attached to the stories and the romance of his parents, Ashoke and Ashima, and focused the film on them. “I wanted to speak of old-shoe love, the love between our parents that you never see on screen,” she said.
Do authors get annoyed when their work is edited or crunched?
In the experience of Nair and Ondaatje, they don’t. “Jhumpa wasn’t a police person, neither was (Mohsin) Hamid (author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist). They loved the medium of cinema and expected the book would be taken into the realm of cinema,” Nair said.
American writer Amy Tan, who helped adapt her book Joy Luck Club for the screen, had a contrasting experience. In her case, while writing the screenplay, she would often recommend cutting scenes that were central to the novel, but felt were unnecessary to the film. The director Wayne Wang would often end up being more attached to the scenes. “I was very disrespectful to my book,” she said.
On the other hand, Nicholas Shakespeare, who also wrote the screenplay for the 2002 adaptation of his novel The Dancer Upstairs, thought the novel and the film were two completely different creatures that couldn’t be compared. “The difference between a novel and a film was that of a donkey and a carrot,” he said.
He pointed out that the screenwriter had access to music and silence that the novelist doesn’t. “You could have a moment in which the camera is on the the face of Javier Bardem, an amazing actor. No novelist can really write what Bardem is doing in that moment,” he said.
Playwright Tom Stoppard said he often felt displaced in the world of film, which as Ondaatje said, is filled with “subliminal tricks” – such as the camera lingering on an actor’s face to suggest she is lying.
“In a way, our being writers and manipulators of the word…we’re not necessarily the most important people to ask about how to turn a novel into a movie,” he said, pointing out that no one wrote a book called Citizen Kane, which was a classic movie in its own right.
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