Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Midnight's Children: How good intentions can sink an adaptation

Posted By on 07.03.13 at 02:35 PM

Deepa Mehtas film of Midnights Children
  • Deepa Mehta's film of Midnight's Children
The movie version of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, suffers from an inferiority complex that's common to film adaptations of highly regarded novels. The movie feels overstuffed with incident, as though the filmmakers (including director Deepa Mehta and Rushdie himself, who's credited with the screenplay) were trying to include as many details from the book as they could. This approach is surely born out of good intentions, the filmmakers wanting to retain the wealth of details that made the source material so good. Yet the resulting film (and so many reverent adaptations like it) only reminds you how much more satisfying the book must be. Where long novels allow you to savor certain details and narrative digressions, a feature-length film has to rush you through them if it wants to preserve the density of its model.

I use the term inferiority complex to describe this approach because it seems rooted in the idea that a serious novel is inherently more meaningful than a film. (It's an idea that film critics perpetuate when they evaluate adaptations based on how well they serve their sources, rather than what they achieve on their own merits.) Starting from that false assumption, a movie can aspire to little more than a handsome illustration of a novel's finest moments. I haven't read Midnight's Children, and Mehta's film, to its credit, makes me want to. Some of the most moving scenes are when Rushdie simply reads blocks of his prose over the action; his words have a wry, delicate sensibility that recast controversial historical episodes in humane terms. The story covers one family's history across roughly 70 years of Indian and Pakistani history—I assume that the colorful secondary characters register as more than thumbnail sketches in the book.

Then there's the issue of the central literary conceit. In the story, all the children born on midnight of the day of India's independence (August 15, 1947) have the ability to communicate with each other telepathically. Mehta depicts this literally, showing the young hero sitting among dozens of other children whenever he summons them in his mind. It's a clumsy image, depriving Rushdie's idea of its poetic ambiguity—though it provides a sense of the power it must have on the page.

In last week's issue, I wrote a generally negative review of Neil Jordan's Byzantium, focusing on the silliness of its premise and the overdetermined quality of its metaphors. I'm also unfamiliar with that film's source material—Moira Buffini's play A Vampire Story—but I never felt while watching Byzantium that I would have gotten more out of the story had I experienced it in another form. A novelist himself, Jordan is particularly strong at conveying the experience of reading, how it feels to burrow into a narrative and lose sight of the world at large. I wonder if he could have made a better movie out of Midnight's Children—or at least one that failed on its own terms.

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