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A Fine Pickle: Slumdog Millionaire and Film Adaptation
Slumdog kids.jpg

A film director once told Salman Rushdie that all movies made from novels are rubbish. With so many screenplays based on books triumphing at the Oscars this week and Slumdog Millionaire stealing the show, he asks is there such a thing as a good adaptation.

By Salman Rushdie

Adaptation, the process by which one thing develops into another thing, by which one shape or form changes into a different form, is a commonplace artistic activity. Books are turned into plays and films all the time, plays are turned into movies and also sometimes into musicals, movies are turned into Broadway shows and even, by the ugly method known as "novelisation", into books as well. We live in a world of such transformations and metamorphoses. Good movies - Lolita, The Pink Panther - are remade as bad movies; bad movies - The Incredible Hulk, Deep Throat - are remade as even worse movies; British TV comedy series are turned into American TV comedy series, so that The Office becomes a different The Office, and Ricky Gervais turns into Steve Carell, just as, long ago, the British working-class racist Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part turned into the American blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker in All In the Family. British reality programmes are adapted to suit American audiences as well; Pop Idol becomes American Idol when it crosses the Atlantic, Strictly Come Dancing becomes Dancing With the Stars - a programme which, it may interest you to know, invited me to appear on it last season, an invitation I declined.

Songs by great artists are covered by lesser artists; on inauguration day this year, Beyoncé performed her version of Etta James's classic "At Last" to the considerable irritation of Etta James herself (but then, James seemed even more irritated by the election of Barack Obama, so perhaps she was just in a bad mood). All of these are examples of the myriad variations of adaptation, an insatiable process which can sometimes seem voracious, world-swallowing, as if we now live in a culture that endlessly cannibalises itself, so that, eventually, it will have eaten itself up completely. Anyone can make a list of the many catastrophic adaptations they have seen - my personal favourites being David Lean's ridiculous film of A Passage to India, in which Alec Guinness as a Hindu wise man dangles his feet blasphemously in the waters of a sacred water tank; and the Merchant Ivory emasculation of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, in which Ishiguro's guilty-as-hell British Nazi aristocrat is portrayed as a lovable, misguided, deceived old bugger more deserving of our sympathy than our scorn.

But adaptation can be a creative as well as a destructive force. Rod Stewart singing "Downtown Train" is almost the equal of Tom Waits, and Joe Cocker singing "With a Little Help from My Friends" achieves the rare feat of singing a Beatles song better than the Beatles did, which is less impressive when you remember that the original singer was Ringo Starr. I'm currently teaching a course that highlights some of the instances in which fine books have been adapted into fine films - Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence mutated into Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence; Giuseppe di Lampedusa's portrait of Sicily in 1860, The Leopard, turned into Luchino Visconti's greatest film; Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood became a wonderful John Huston movie; and, in his film of Great Expectations, Lean produced a classic that can stand alongside the Dickens novel without any sense of inferiority, a film that allows this film-goer, at least, to forgive him for the later blunders of A Passage to India.

There are many other examples of successful adaptation. Few people these days read Jan Potocki's 19th-century Franco-Polish masterpiece The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, but I urge you to discover it for its playfulness and bizarrerie, its surreal, supernatural, gothic, picaresque world of Gypsies, thieves, hallucinations, inquisitions and a pair of unbelievably beautiful sisters who are, unfortunately for the men they seduce, only ghosts. Its qualities are perfectly captured by the Polish film director Wojciech Has in his 1965 film The Saragossa Manuscript, which you should seek out at once. Satyajit Ray's 1955 film Pather Panchali ("The Song of the Little Road") not only equalled but bettered the 1929 Bengali classic by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadyahya from which it was adapted. Huston seems to have been a particularly gifted adapter of good literature, and his film of Joyce's "The Dead", perhaps the greatest short story in the English language, brings it vividly, passionately to life; although right at the end, when the camera moves out through a window to watch the falling snow, and Joyce's famous words take over from Huston's images, speaking of the snow that was falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead, we are reminded of the difference between excellence and genius. The Dead is an excellent film, but the last lines of Joyce's story surpass it effortlessly.

The question raised by the adaptive excesses of Adaptation is the question at the heart of the entire subject of adaptation - that is to say, the question of essence. "Poetry is what gets lost in translation," said Robert Frost, but Joseph Brodsky retorted: "Poetry is what is gained in translation," and the battle-lines could not be more clearly drawn. My own view has always been that whether we are talking about a poem moving across a language border to become another poem in another tongue, a book crossing the frontier between the world of print and celluloid, or human beings migrating from one world to another, both Frost and Brodsky are right. Something is always lost in translation; and yet something can also be gained. I am defining adaptation very broadly, to include translation, migration and metamorphosis, all the means by which one thing becomes another. In my novel Midnight's Children the narrator Saleem discusses the making of pickles as this sort of adaptive process: "I reconcile myself," he says, "to the inevitable distortions of the pickling process. To pickle is to give immortality, after all: fish, vegetables, fruit hang embalmed in spice-and-vinegar; a certain alteration, a slight intensification of taste, is a small matter, surely? The art is to change the flavour in degree, but not in kind; and above all (in my thirty jars and a jar) to give it shape and form - that is to say, meaning."

The question of essences remains at the heart of the adaptive act: how to make a second version of a first thing, of a book or film or poem or vegetable, or of yourself, that is successfully its own, new thing and yet carries with it the essence, the spirit, the soul of the first thing, the thing that you yourself, or your book or poem or film or your pre-pickle mango or lime, originally were.

Is it impossible? Is the intangible in our arts and our natures, the space between our words, the things seen in between the things shown, inevitably discarded in the remaking process, and if so can it be filled up with other spaces, other visions, that satisfy or even enrich us enough so that we do not mind the loss? To look at adaptation in this broad-spectrum way, to take it beyond the realm of art into the rest of life, is to see that all the meanings of the word deal with the question of what is essential - in a work adapted to another form, in an individual adapting to a new home, in a society adapting to a new age. What do you preserve? What do you jettison? What is changeable, and where must you draw the line? The questions are always the same, and the way we answer them determines the quality of the adaptation, of the book, the poem, or of our own lives.

So what of the adaptations in this week's Oscars? In 1921, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote an odd little story called "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", about the birth, to "young Mr and Mrs Roger Button", of a male baby who is born as a 70-year-old man and who then lives backwards, getting younger all the time, until at the end of his life, baby-sized and shrinking slowly in his white crib, he is sucked away into nothingness. In 2008, this little squib of a tale was turned by Brad Pitt and the director David Fincher into a $200m film.

However, the difference between the story and the movie is unusually great. In Fitzgerald's story, Benjamin is born as a full-sized septuagenarian male. It is never explained how Mrs Button managed to give birth to such a large baby without being torn in half. Indeed, Mrs Button never gets a look-in. In the story, Benjamin's life is lived largely in the private sphere, apart from an excursion to fight in the Spanish-American war, while in the movie he becomes involved in so many of the public events of his time that the picture might almost have been called Zelig in Reverse, or perhaps Forrest Gump Goes Backwards. (The screenwriter of Forrest Gump, Eric Roth, who adapted that screenplay from the novel by Winston Groom, is also responsible for Benjamin Button.)

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two works is that, other than sharing the idea of a man who lives backwards in time, their stories are entirely different; the film is not really an adaptation of the book, but almost entirely Roth's creation. And while Roth and Fincher's film is essentially a bravura special-effects performance helped by two fine acting performances, by Pitt and Cate Blanchett, it doesn't finally have anything in particular to say. Fitzgerald's story is at least a comedy of snobbery and embarrassment which, while maintaining a deliberately frothy and light tone, enjoyably satirises the social attitudes of late 19th and early 20th-century Baltimore.

Everyone accepts that stories and films are different things, and that the source material must be modified, even radically modified, to be effective in the new medium. The only interesting questions are "how?" and "how much?" However, when the original is virtually discarded, it's difficult to know if the result can be called an adaptation at all.

There are, after all, other well-known stories of time-reversal that precede the Fincher/Roth film. In Martin Amis's 1991 novel Time's Arrow, the story of the Holocaust is told in reverse, so that, in one extraordinary scene, kindly Nazi doctors in a concentration camp fetch gold from their private stores and use it to put fillings into the teeth of Jewish dental patients. But in Time's Arrow everything, and not just one single life, goes backwards. Perhaps the best known example of another Button-style reversal is the character of the wizard Merlyn in TH White's 1938 classic The Sword in the Stone, itself the subject of a Disneyfied adaptation over which it would be best to draw a veil. Merlyn, the teacher of the boy known as Wart, the future King Arthur, lives backwards in time, and thus has the great advantage of knowing the future while being confused about the past. Benjamin Button has no such luck. He's old and robotic, but as ignorant as any new-born babe. On the other hand, he grows into Brad Pitt, so things are not all bad.

What can one say about Slumdog Millionaire, adapted from the novel Q&A by the Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup and directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, which won eight Oscars, including best picture? A feelgood movie about the dreadful Bombay slums, an opulently photographed movie about extreme poverty, a romantic, Bollywoodised look at the harsh, unromantic underbelly of India - well - it feels good, right? And, just to clinch it, there's a nifty Bollywood dance sequence at the end. (Actually, it's an amazingly second-rate dance sequence even by Bollywood's standards, but never mind.) It's probably pointless to go up against such a popular film, but let me try.

The problems begin with the work being adapted. Swarup's novel is a corny potboiler, with a plot that defies belief: a boy from the slums somehow manages to get on to the hit Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and answers all his questions correctly because the random accidents of his life have, in a series of outrageous coincidences, given him the information he needs, and are conveniently asked in the order that allows his flashbacks to occur in chronological sequence. This is a patently ridiculous conceit, the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name. It is a plot device faithfully preserved by the film-makers, and lies at the heart of the weirdly renamed Slumdog Millionaire. As a result the film, too, beggars belief.

It used to be the case that western movies about India were about blonde women arriving there to find, almost at once, a maharajah to fall in love with, the supply of such maharajahs being apparently endless and specially provided for English or American blondes; or they were about European women accusing non-maharajah Indians of rape, perhaps because they were so indignant at having being approached by a non-maharajah; or they were about dashing white men galloping about the colonies firing pistols and unsheathing sabres, to varying effect. Now that sort of exoticism has lost its appeal; people want, instead, enough grit and violence to convince themselves that what they are seeing is authentic; but it's still tourism. If the earlier films were raj tourism, maharajah-tourism, then we, today, have slum tourism instead. In an interview conducted at the Telluride film festival last autumn, Boyle, when asked why he had chosen a project so different from his usual material, answered that he had never been to India and knew nothing about it, so he thought this project was a great opportunity. Listening to him, I imagined an Indian film director making a movie about New York low-life and saying that he had done so because he knew nothing about New York and had indeed never been there. He would have been torn limb from limb by critical opinion. But for a first world director to say that about the third world is considered praiseworthy, an indication of his artistic daring. The double standards of post-colonial attitudes have not yet wholly faded away.

There is a widely held view among movie-lovers that films made from original screenplays are and must be held to be superior to films made by adapting plays or books. The brilliant books of recent times that have undergone cinematic transmutation include - to offer a very incomplete list - Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers, Ian McEwan's Atonement, Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, Graham Swift's Last Orders, Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, Patrick McGrath's Spider, Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, Innocent Eréndira and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and Short Cuts from the stories of Raymond Carver. (Independence Day, the movie, was of course not an adaptation of Richard Ford's award-winning novel, which unfortunately came out at much the same time as the film, so that, according to legend, when customers in bookstores requested the book, the booksellers were obliged to ask: "With or without aliens?")

Of this particular list, however, perhaps only Volker Schlöndorff's film of The Tin Drum is worth talking about as a film, and this imbalance between good and bad adaptations strengthens the argument of the anti-adaptation lobby. Short Cuts betrays Carver's vision by moving most of his characters up the social scale, where their barely suppressed despair looks like self-indulgence. And down at the very bottom of the barrel is the film of The Human Stain, which casts, in the role of an African-American man who manages to pass for white for much of his life, the actor Anthony Hopkins, a light-skinned Welshman.

The anti-adaptation, pro-original-screenplay argument was once expounded to me with immense vehemence by a somewhat inebriated British film producer, who said, with a certain amount of fist-pounding on our hosts' dinner-table, that all movies made from books are shit. It is certainly possible to make a strong argument for the Shit Position. The Human Stain does not stand alone. The films of almost all the books I've just mentioned are failures, tedious, lazy and limp, where the originals are gripping, energetic and taut. The films of García Márquez's masterpieces, in particular, are travesties, replacing the writer's imaginative precision with a lazy exoticism that betrays the originals profoundly without even knowing it is doing so.

However, Schlöndorff's Tin Drum stands as a magnificent exception with, at its heart, the electric performance of David Bennent as Oskar Matzerath, the Peter Pan among the million lost boys and murderous pirates of Nazi Germany: little, stunted Oskar, the other boy in classic literature who never grew up. I've tried to find more films that disprove the British producer's dictum, and could add, for example, the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, a film that succeeds by keeping very close, scene by scene, line of dialogue by line of dialogue, to Cormac McCarthy's novel, and There Will Be Blood, which succeeds by the opposite method, making a free, loose and largely successful adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!; but the failures are so much more frequent than the successes.

The auteur theory of film-making was first expressed by François Truffaut in Cahiers du Cinéma in the late 1950s, and amplified, first as film theory and then in the making of actual films, by a group of critics who would turn into some of the world's most important film-makers: Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. But even though the idea of the superiority of scripts written as original screenplays rather than adaptations lay at or near the heart of the French New Wave, many of the finest works of French, and indeed world cinema in the 50s and 60s were, in fact, successful adaptations. Godard, a devotee of the original screenplay, had his greatest commercial success with Le Mépris ("Contempt") which was based on a novel by Alberto Moravia. Chabrol made a terrific film from Cecil Day Lewis's pseudonymously written thriller The Beast Must Die, or, in French, Que la Bête Meurt; Rohmer brilliantly filmed the classic novella by Heinrich von Kleist, Die Marquise von O ...; and then there's Jules et Jim, from the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché.

The immensely rich world cinema of the same era likewise went some distance towards exploding the Shit Principle. Kurosawa's early samurai masterpieces Yojimbo and Sanjuro had literary originals, although The Seven Samurai came from an original screenplay; and Rashomon was made by combining two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Satyajit Ray took much from classic Bengali literature, and some of his greatest films, such as Charulata and The Home and the World, are adapted more or less faithfully from originals by Rabindranath Tagore. Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini invariably filmed their own original screenplays, but Luis Buñuel was less dogmatic and made some of his most successful films by allying his own anarchic, surrealist tendencies to classic European literature, adapting for instance Belle de Jour by Joseph Kessel.

The case against film adaptations thus remains unproven and, when we look below the level of great literature, a plausible argument can be made that many cinematic adaptations are better than their prose source materials. I would suggest that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films surpass Tolkien's originals, because, to be blunt, Jackson makes films better than Tolkien writes; Jackson's cinematic style, sweeping, lyrical, by turns intimate and epic, is greatly preferable to Tolkien's prose style, which veers alarmingly between windbaggery, archness, pomposity, and achieves something like humanity, and ordinary English, only in the parts about hobbits, the little people who are our representatives in the saga to a far greater degree than its grandly heroic (or snivellingly crooked) men.

My personal experiences with adaptation have been ... well, mixed, though they are improving. Things got off to a bad start. One of the producers of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi said she was keen to make a film of Midnight's Children, except for one small part, which she found weak and redundant. Unfortunately, this small part was the climax of the novel, in which the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was, more or less, the villain. "You just don't need that," the producer said, "the book is so much better without it." That project did not go forward. In the years that followed there were other abortive attempts to film the novel. The nearest miss was in 1997. There was a plan for a five-part BBC mini-series, for which I wrote the adaptation myself. This taught me much of what I know about adaptation, in particular the need for ruthlessness with the extremely long original, combined with a determination to fillet out and preserve its essence. The series was never made because of last-minute political problems in Sri Lanka, where the principal photography was to have taken place, and that was a huge disappointment.

A couple of years later, however, I was able to use that experience, and some of the work, in a theatre adaptation of Midnight's Children, directed by Tim Supple, which the Royal Shakespeare Company performed both in Britain and in America. Theatre is a different beast - it's so present, the play's being right there in front of you makes it such an insistently declaratory form (except in the hands of a Beckett or Pinter, who turn its normal rules upside down); and what is true of the theatre in general is doubly true of epic theatre. As a result the stage adaptation of Midnight's Children differed in two striking ways from the book: first, it was much more noisily, obviously political, putting the political material front and centre instead of using it more suggestively, in the background, as the novel often does; and, second, there was a lot more sex. I mean: a lot more.

Speaking as the author of the adaptation as well as the novel, I liked these differences. I thought of the play as a sort of second cousin of the book - perhaps its illegitimate child; its relative, not its mirror-image, and I thought its brasher, more aggressively in-your-face style was powerful and effective and properly theatrical, while remaining true to the book's spirit. The response from audiences was interestingly divided. It soon became clear that the people who most enjoyed the show were those who had not read the novel.

This production was in marked contrast to Supple's, marvellous, fluid, magical adaptation of Haroun and the Sea of Stories for the National Theatre. So perhaps the problem was me. We'll find out soon enough, because I'm about to do it again, this time for the movies. There's a new project to film Midnight's Children, this time with my friend Deepa Mehta, director of the Oscar-nominated Water, and in a few months' time she and I will be settling down to work out how you preserve the essence of a 600-page novel in a 100-page screenplay. There are some obvious decisions to be made. Can we really tell the story of all the novel's three generations, or ought we to concentrate on Saleem's own life? But then, would it be Midnight's Children, especially without the "perforated sheet" - the episode in which Saleem's grandparents fall in love through a sheet with a hole in it? And again: what language should the film be in, as many of the book's characters would not really be speaking in English? (Here we may actually have been helped by Slumdog Millionaire, which is accustoming international cinema-goers to an Indian movie in which the dialogue is partly in English and partly in subtitled Marathi and Hindi.) And what shall we do about Saleem's enormous nose?

The essence of a work to be adapted may lie anywhere - in the frame-stories that tell us, for example, how Superman became super, why Batman became batty, or why the Joker jokes. It may lie in a story's unique atmospherics - the depression-era bigotries of a small Alabama town as seen through a young girl's eyes - or it may lie in a character's interiority, the inner life of Holden Caulfield or of Proust's narrator Marcel. That these essences can be understood and captured on film is exemplified by, for example, Raul Ruiz's great film of Proust's Time Regained, or Robert Mulligan's film of To Kill a Mockingbird, or Heath Ledger's extraordinary incarnation of the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Most difficult of all for the adapter are those texts whose essences reside in language, and this may explain why all those García Márquez movies were so bad, why there have never been good films made from the work of Italo Calvino or Thomas Pynchon or Evelyn Waugh (though there are many snobbery-choked versions of Brideshead Revisited), why movies of Hemingway so often misfire (I'm thinking of The Old Man and the Sea, with Spencer Tracy cast horribly adrift with a dead fish), and why even a really good try such as Joseph Strick's 1967 attempt to film Joyce's Ulysses doesn't fully match up to the original, even though it is perfectly cast, with Milo O'Shea as an uncannily good incarnation of Leopold Bloom, and Maurice Roëves as a more than adequate Stephen Dedalus. When it does succeed, it does so, like Huston at the end of The Dead, by surrendering to Joyce's language completely. In the final scene of Ulysses, Barbara Jefford as Molly Bloom lounges and rolls promiscuously upon her marital bed, and delivers in voiceover the grandest soliloquy in any novel, and as yes she says yes she says yes, the world of Joyce's tongue comes fully alive at last.

What is essential? It's one of the great questions of life, and, as I've suggested, it's a question that crops up in other adaptations than artistic ones. The text is human society and the human self, in isolation or in groups, the essence to be preserved is a human essence, and the result is the pluralist, hybridised, mixed-up world in which we all now live. Adaptation as metaphor, to paraphrase Susan Sontag, adaptation as carrying across, which is the literal meaning of the word "metaphor", from the Greek, and of the related word "translation", another form of carrying across, this time derived from Latin.

What are the things we think of as essential in our lives? The answers could be: our children, a daily walk in the park, a good stiff drink, the reading of books, a job, a vacation, a baseball team, a cigarette, or love. And yet life has a way of making us rethink. Our children move away from home, we move away from our favourite park, the doctor forbids us to drink or smoke, we lose our eyesight, we get fired, there's no time or money to take a vacation, our baseball team sucks, our heart is broken. At such times our picture of the world hangs crookedly on the wall. Then, if we can manage it, we adapt. And what this shows us is that essence is something deeper than any of that, it's the thing that gets us through. The 12 separate varieties of finches that Charles Darwin found on the Galápagos Islands had all made local adaptations, but when the ornithologist John Gould examined Darwin's specimens in 1837, he could see that these were not different birds, but 12 variations of the same bird. In spite of random mutation and natural selection, their finchness, their essence, was intact.

As individuals, as communities, as nations, we are the constant adapters of ourselves, and must constantly ask ourselves the question wherein does our finchness lie: what are the things we cannot ever give up unless we wish to cease to be ourselves?

We can learn this much from the poets who translate the poetry of others, from the screenwriters and film-makers who turn words on the page into images on a screen, from all those who carry across one thing into another state: an adaptation works best when it is a genuine transaction between the old and the new, carried out by persons who understand and care for both, who can help the thing adapted to leap the gulf and shine again in a different light. In other words, the process of social, cultural and individual adaptation, just like artistic adaptation, needs to be free, not rigid, if it is to succeed. Those who cling too fiercely to the old text, the thing to be adapted, the old ways, the past, are doomed to produce something that does not work, an unhappiness, an alienation, a quarrel, a failure, a loss.

But those who do not know who they are, are doomed too: individuals who sacrifice themselves for the sake of pleasing others, comedians who stop telling jokes because they find themselves in a humourless world, serious people who start trying to tell jokes because they fear being thought humourless, people in a new situation, a new relationship, a new university, who act against their natures because they think that's the way to make things easy for themselves.

Whole societies can lose their way through a process of bad adaptation. Striving to save themselves, they can oppress others. Hoping to defend themselves, they can damage the very liberties they believed to be under attack. Claiming to defend freedom, they can make themselves and others less free. Or, seeking to calm the violent hotheads in their midst, societies can try to appease them, and so give the violent hotheads the notion that their violence and hotheadedness is effective. Wishing to create better understanding between peoples, they can seek to prevent the expression of opinions unpalatable to some of their members, and so immediately make others even angrier than they were before.

Societies in motion, at a time of rapid change such as the present day, succeed, as all good adaptations do, by knowing what is essential, what cannot be compromised, what all their citizens must accept as the price of membership. For many years now, I'm sorry to say, we have lived through an era of bad social adaptations, of appeasements and surrenders on the one hand, of arrogant excesses and coercions on the other.

We can only hope that the worst is over, and that better movies, better musicals and better times lie ahead.