Like many readers who loved Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I was excited when I heard that Toronto director Deepa Mehta was finally going to turn the 1981 novel into a movie. What the hell was I thinking? Rushdie’s rich, sprawling masterpiece can’t be shoehorned into a feature-length film and retain anything like its original impact. Besides, it’s one of those works whose genius lies in its author’s distinctive literary style. Mehta’s ambitious failure, opening Friday, is the perfect argument that brilliant works of literature should be left on the page.
Still, some filmmakers remain gutsy—or maybe foolhardy—enough to think they can pull it off. Last week brought the all-star, big-budget treatment of David Mitchell’s 2004 tour de force, Cloud Atlas, another wonderful book that virtually cries out, “Don’t even try to film me”—a warning that directors Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (the Matrix flicks) refused to heed.
Of the two works, Midnight’s Children would appear to be the easier one to put onscreen. It’s a classic linear, picaresque tale with an epic historical backdrop (the first decades of India’s independence), delightful Dickensian characters, and many vivid, near-farcical scenes. Watching the film, however, you realize just how jam-packed the novel was and how impossible it is to convey both its scope and its depth even with a running time of 148 minutes. The book needs a miniseries, at least.
Mehta tries to get in as much of the plot as possible, but sacrifices character development to do it. You wish she and Rushdie, who wrote the screen adaptation, had narrowed their focus. The film might have been better if it simply concentrated on the story of the superpowered “midnight’s children,” and the rivalry between the upper-class hero, Saleem, and his poor, angry counterpart, Shiva. With apologies to Rushdie, Midnight’s Children needed a more ruthless screenwriter.
The intricate Russian doll structure of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a bigger challenge to film. It consists of six successive narratives, set in different historical periods, each one existing inside the story that follows it. It’s a sly device that sucks you, by turns, into each of these interconnected tales. Tykwer and the Wachowskis’ brash, gimmicky film does the opposite. The directors chop up the narratives and have all six unfolding simultaneously, so that there’s no time to get caught up in any one of them. Even more alienating, they have a cast of familiar faces—Tom Hanks, Halle Berry—playing multiple roles, ostensibly to hammer home the themes of reincarnation and the repetition of history. Instead, you’re distracted by all the wigs and makeup, not to mention some of the sketchy accents. (For the record, Hugh Grant can’t do an American one to save himself.)
The economic reasons for filming literary works are obvious: A beloved book has a built-in audience, while a movie can hugely increase an author’s readership. The artistic reasons are less clear. Occasionally, a great book will be turned into a great film—although the book always remains better—but more often, the movie is held back by its literary source. An excess of voice-over narration (a problem with Midnight’s Children and many other book adaptations, notably Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) is a sure sign that what we’re watching onscreen really belongs between covers.
Maybe it makes more sense to forget a straightforward adaptation altogether. There’s a lovely little scene two-thirds of the way through Midnight’s Children, when Saleem (Satya Bhabha) and his teenage sister Jamila (Soha Ali Khan) dance spontaneously to the Hindi pop classic “Aao Twist Karein” by Bollywood singer Manna Dey. At that point it suddenly struck me: Why didn’t Mehta just turn Midnight’s Children into a full-blown Bollywood musical? Why not translate the exuberance of Rushdie’s prose into the exuberance of big song-and-dance numbers? I’d much rather watch that kind of crazy riff on a great novel than see a tediously faithful version.
But the poor response to Midnight’s Children and divided reaction to Cloud Atlas aren’t likely to lead to any kind of reconsideration of literary films, let alone a moratorium on them. It’s a time-honoured tradition that no one seems to question. And I’ll admit that, even though I’m convinced they’re an exercise in futility, I’m still a sucker for them. Despite my better judgment, I’m already waiting, with a mixture of curiosity and dread, for Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D remake of The Great Gatsby.