It’s a truism that great books make lousy movies. Film is about economy of expression; novels (with some exceptions, such as Ian McEwan or Murakami) are about density of language. Salman Rushdie, who has adapted his own gloriously unfilmable novel Midnight’s Children for the screen, even admitted as much in the Screen Talk I attended at the BFI London Film Festival.
Rushdie began his surprisingly warm and funny talk with an old joke about two goats who break into a projection room and start eating reels of celluloid. “What do you think of the movie?” asks one. “I preferred the book,” says the other.
So why do it? Rushdie said he chose to write the screenplay himself so he would have no one else to blame if it all went terribly wrong. It’s to his credit that it doesn’t, quite: the film, like the book, is still critical enough of Indira Gandhi to have angered the ruling Congress party at the Kerala Film Festival, and it was only a few days ago that it finally secured a release date (Feb 1) in India. And to anyone who hasn’t read the original, it will still be an enthralling, colourful epic. But it doesn’t work as a film.
The sprawling narrative about the end of colonial rule in India and the problems of Partition requires way too much exposition, not helped by the late addition of a voiceover (narrated by Rushdie) which the director decided was needed to retain the flavour of the book’s prose. More problematic are the magic realist elements – a group of children, born at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947 when India achieved independence, grow up each with their own superpower – which just seem silly on screen. You half expect Ian McKellen to show up in his Magneto hat.
“Kill your babies,” William Goldman famously said of screenwriting. Rushdie is no King Herod. He did say he was proud of an extra scene he added at the end, where the two rivals confront each other; but he might more usefully have worked on his skills of subtraction.
Rushdie spoke movingly at the LFF Screen Talk of his long love of film, honed in a rep cinema while an undergraduate at Cambridge (just as I had the Penultimate Picture Palace and the Phoenix while at Oxford – that first taste of European art movie, Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, lifted the top of my head clean off). Let’s hope Rushdie now turns his hand to an original screenplay.