Moby Lives

Rushdie redux on books into movies

March 2, 2009
Melville House
Salman Rusdie in his guise as a film critic

Salman Rusdie in his guise as a film critic

MobyLives reported last week on Salman Rushdie’s public disparagement of Slumdog Millionaire. The details were fairly hazy at that point and many onlookers (for which, read gossips) were left craving more. Well, he rose to the occasion with an essay for the Guardian Saturday Review, in which he discusses the merits and failings of adaptation. A “commonplace artistic activity”, whether genre-hopping or simply remaking, adaptation rarely implies improvement. Indeed, it is often catastrophic; “an insatiable process which can sometimes seem voracious, world-swallowing, as if we now live in a culture that endlessly cannibalises itself…” He cites the film version of The Remains of the Day, in which Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nazi-sympathising lord becomes an appealing old duffer, as a perfect example of this. Another is David Len’s version of A Passage to India, in which the Hindu wise man is guilty of blasphemy. Luckily, Lean also has Great Expectations to offset this blot on his record. Other great adaptations include The Age of Innocence and The Leopard.

Rushdie saves the most poisonous venom for this year’s Oscar winners. Slumdog comes in for a detailed and furious analysis, perhaps the most telling point of which concerns Danny Boyle’s idiotic remark that one of the appealing aspects of this project was that he had never been to India. “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.”

This is a wonderful essay and I don’t want to ruin it with any more précis; please read it. One thing I would like to open to the floor for comment, however: “…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.” Rushdie suggests The Lord of the Rings, which I take serious issue with. I would offer Dune as an alternative –- but I can’t think of any other examples. Is it only sci-fi that works better on film? What other movies surpass their originals?

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