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From Page to Screen


Great cinema that stems from outstanding literature has always been of special interest to both book and film lovers. TIFF, organisers of the Toronto International Film Festival, brings the two breeds together in its Books on Film series. The fourth season of the series got underway this week with Mohsin Hamid discussing Mira Nair’s adaptation of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | New Delhi, March 7, 2014 15:52
Tags : From Page to Screen | Cinema | TIFF | Mohsin Hamid | Eleanor Wachtel | Kiefer Sutherland | Kate Hudson | Mira Nair |

Cinema has for decades fed off the pages of literature as much as it has off life itself. The duet of literary works and the motion pictures has often yielded timeless screen gems. It has, equally frequently, been hugely contentious and uneasy.

It is not uncommon for practitioners on the two sides of the divide to cross swords over questions of creative liberty and fidelity. Readers of an adapted book frequently jump into the fray to pour scorn on the film version of a much-loved story for falling short of their expectations.

In order to give such debates a clear direction and a meaningful outlet, TIFF has been running a ‘Books on Film’ series that allows litterateurs and filmmakers to address the questions and concerns of readers/filmgoers in person, and directly.

 The 2014 edition of the ‘Books on Film’ series, which is now in its fourth season, kicked off at TIFF Bell Lightbox in downtown Toronto on March 3. Lahore-based writer Mohsin Hamid was in attendance to share his thoughts on Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair’s screen adaptation of his global bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Eleanor Wachtel of CBC Radio One’s flagship literary programme, Writers & Company, was, as in past seasons, in the host’s chair. ‘Books on Film’ features filmmakers, authors and experts who discuss the always exciting but frequently challenging art of transporting a widely read book to the movie screen.

Bell Lightbox, which opened in 2010, is the home of TIFF, which, among other events all year round, organises the famed annual Toronto International Film Festival.

 To unveil the fourth season of ‘Books on Film’, which is scheduled to play out on select Mondays from March 3 to June 23, TIFF screened The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The book on which the film is based was hailed by The Guardian as one of the books that defined the decade and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

 Although Mira Nair’s adaptation stays largely true to Hamid’s written text, the cinematic rendition of the plot and the characters inevitably changes the essential dynamics of the story to an appreciable extent. Hamid, in an interview given after the completion of the film, admitted as much.

The author said: “I don’t think the job of a film is to be a novel on screen. A film is a work of art that is inspired by, in this case, a novel. A lot of people may say that the film didn’t do justice to the novel etc…but I would ask, is the film itself a good film? The reason why that is the right criterion to judge is because, a novel works by allowing the reader to do much of the imagining in their minds as they read it. It’s like going to a shop and buying tomatoes, onions, rice and lentils, etc. and cooking a meal. It’s your shopping list…

 “A film is like a meal that’s been cooked for you. You know what things look like, sound like – it’s all pre-imagined for you. So, it’s natural that readers will feel that the film may not do justice to the book, because the film is somebody else imagining, not you. But, I don’t think it’s the right lens to view the success of a film. What’s more important is: does the film work aesthetically? Are its politics in the right place? Does it have real integrity and power?”

Pretty much the same questions were directed at Torontonian Deepa Mehta when she, in the same year as The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), transformed Salman Rushdie’s hugely influential Midnight’s Children into a film.

 Rushdie, on his part, had absolutely no issue with the adaptation. In fact, he was not only personally involved with the process of turning his magic-realist novel into a visual narrative but also lent his voice to the film.

 Mehta was invited to last year’s ‘Books on Film’ series to answer questions relating to the creative choices that she made during the filming of Rushdie's career-defining novel.    

 In Mira Nair’s reimagining of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, London-based actor Riz Ahmed takes on the role of a bright young Pakistani, Changez Khan, who travels to the US on a scholarship from Princeton University and lands the job of a financial analyst at a top Wall Street valuation firm as soon as he steps out of school.

 His rise in the corporate hierarchy is meteoric. He makes a strong impression on his demanding boss and mentor (played by Kiefer Sutherland) and rises through the ranks to become an associate. Changez also falls in love with an aspiring photographer (Kate Hudson) and does everything he can to assimilate himself in the culture of his adoptive country.

His life begins to spiral out of control when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happen and everything changes around him. His Pakistani roots make him an object of suspicion. Even those who know him begin to look at him differently.

He is routinely strip-searched at airports. Things get nastier when he is picked up for interrogation only because of his nationality. He eventually returns to his homeland to begin a new life as a professor of political and social activism. His worldview has by now been substantially altered, a fact that instantly puts him in the line of US intelligence fire.

 The Reluctant Fundamentalist wasn’t Mira Nair’s first adaptation of a bestseller. The Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding director, in 2007, turned The Namesake, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, into a critically acclaimed movie starring Irrfan Khan and Tabu.

 The Namesake was a subtle study of the kind of subliminal cultural hostility immigrants have to deal with in the US, where an underlying suspicion of people from a different background seems to be pervasive, if not always acknowledged.

With The Reluctant Fundamentalist, she explores a deeper and more unsettling form of racism in the turbulent aftermath of 9/11. What she delivers is a serious film that is cast essentially in the mould of a thriller.

In the novel, the narrative is presented from the point of view of the protagonist. In the film, Nair frames it as an interview-based account recorded by a journalist. She makes several changes to the book and pushes some significant plot points in markedly different directions.

 The first couple of drafts of the screenplay for The Reluctant Fundamentalist were co-written by Hamid himself, but eventually a professional screenwriter was roped in to lend Hollywood-style momentum to the action.

Several other books will figure in the 2014 line-up of the ‘Books on Film’ series. On March 31, internationally celebrated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland will discuss her 1997 film Washington Square, an adaptation of Henry James' classic novel of the same name about the conflict between a protected young woman and her domineering father in the 1850s New York high society.

  Holland’s film, which was scripted by Carol Doyle, featured Albert Finney, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Maggie Smith, Ben Chaplin and Jennifer Garner in significant roles.

 On April 14, Canadian author Yann Martel will discuss his Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi and its transformation into Taiwanese American director Ang Lee’s Academy Award-winning film starring Irrfan Khan, Tabu and Suraj Sharma.

 On May 12, Chinese American writer Yiyun Li will chronicle her collaboration with director Wayne Wang on the film adaptation of her short story, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

 On June 2, author Andre Dubus III will engage in a discussion on the Academy Award-nominated adaptation of his novel, House of Sand and Fog.

 On June 23, Paul Fierlinger will be at Bell Lightbox to describe the painstaking process by which he and his wife Sandra Fierlinger transformed J.R. Ackerley’s bittersweet memoir, My Dog Tulip, into the first animated feature to be entirely hand-drawn and painted with paperless technology.

The ‘Books on Film’ series, presented in association with Penguin Random House, was launched in 2011 and it has since then hosted many remarkable writers and filmmakers.

In its second season, the series played host to Academy award-nominated Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan on Felicia’s Journey; critically acclaimed and award-winning author Russell Banks on Affliction; and Academy award-nominated director James Ivory on Howard’s End.

In the third season, New Yorker theatre critic and acclaimed author Hilton Als discussed The Innocents, the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’ classic novella The Turn of the Screw, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo threw light on Robert Benton’s adaptation of his acclaimed novel Nobody’s Fool, and film and music producer Lisa Cortés spoke about adapting Push by Sapphire into the award-winning film Precious.

Also part of the third season were award-winning screenwriter and playwright Christopher Hampton, who spoke on his Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Atonement; filmmaker Ted Kotcheff provided a peek into the process of creating his breakthrough adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; and, as mentioned earlier, celebrated New Delhi-born Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta held forth on the long-in-gestation project of adapting Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize–winning classic Midnight's Children.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017