“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.” That helpful declarative statement opens Salman Rushdie’s recent meditation on film adaptations of works of literature, which he finds generally poor. (He does admit to admiring John Huston’s adaptations of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Joyce’s “The Dead,” along with certain works by the Polish director Wojciech Has and the Indian director Satyajit Ray.)
Rushdie’s piece was apparently prompted by last week’s Oscar gala, where, you might remember, literary adaptations cleaned up. Rushdie claims that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is “not really an adaptation” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, but rather an original creation of screenwriter Eric Roth (the same man who was responsible for what in this Quillblogger’s estimation is an execrable adaptation of an execrable novel called Forrest Gump, which also did quite well at the Oscars).
Rushdie saves his greatest vitriol “ and his best rhetoric “ for a precision takedown of the overrated Slumdog Millionaire and Q&A, the uninspiring novel on which it is based:
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.
Rushdie deserves applause for publicly saying what this Quillblogger has been hearing muttered in private for some time about a film that no one seems willing to admit isn’t very good. Herd instinct can be a terrible thing; thankfully Rushdie has never been one to go in for it.
Here’s hoping that the upcoming adaptation of Rushdie’s own Midnight’s Children doesn’t have him eating crow.