05 March 2009

critiquing the critic

i'm not one who normally likes to take on people i see as my intellectual superior, but this article from the guardian by lauded and occasionally infamous author salman rushdie is shocking ill-informed for such a cerebral bright light. it's too bad, because i think that the subject of the article, the process of adaptation, is one that warrants a lot better than the glossing-over it gets here.

my first set of problems with rushdie's argument stems from his points on the much-celebrated, much-hyped, oscar night darling "slumdog millionaire". i haven't seen the film, so my disagreements with rushdie don't have anything to do with a divergence of opinion on its quality.

to start with, rushdie begins his criticism of the film by attacking the plot: "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." i say this is confusing, because, it seems to be predicated on the assumption that writing, in order to convey a fundamental truth, must be believable. strange words from a man who once wrote a novel with a plot that hinges on the belief that the central character ages at double the rate of a normal human being. (he also chooses to use "the tin drum", not exactly an example of highly realistic plotting, as an example of a successful adaptation.)

the belief in the absolute reality of a text has never been a necessary part of either writing or film and rushdie certainly knows that. what should be at issue, is whether or not the reader or viewer of, respectively, book and movie are intended to believe that the events they are seeing are real, or are realistic. i can't comment personally, but what i can say, with authority, is that rushdie, happy to have scored a few literary points against an author of incomparably lesser stature than himself, leaves the question of intent unaddressed.

he continues to fall back on weak, emotionally-charged arguments, by contending that, somehow, american or british directors are able to comment with impunity on the conditions of other countries, whereas they would never permit uninformed commentary on their own native lands: "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."

rushdie would have benefited from a little research here. lars von trier received massive critical acclaim for his films "dogville" and "manderlay" mocking the narrow-minded, xenophobic, backwards culture of small-town america, a place where he had never visited. if rushdie wants to make the argument that only a white director would be allowed to get away with this sort of criticism, i would love to see his back-up. but he doesn't provide any. what he does is hit on an emotional hot-point. many of us do feel guilty for our colonial past and for the post-colonial filters through which we often see the rest of the world. that guilt makes rushdie's point believable- our past wrongs make us believe that we are capable of far worse than we are aware. that may be true in many ways, however in this case, rushdie is rather distastefully using the spectre of racism to disguise the fact that his argument is pretty specious.

what i've mentioned above are some specific problems with the nature of rushdie's arguments and i could go on. he makes some good points as well- particularly about how the changes made in adaptations of books such as "the human stain" and "the remains of the day" fundamentally alter the messages and meaning of the original text. however, these points are accidental. his entire article is basically a highly literate, completely shallow attempt to justify those adaptations that he likes, using completely subjective criteria. (it also veers into a rather obvious attempt at self-promotion part way through, but we'll forgive him for that.)

what amazes me is that a man of rushdie's considerable intellect manages to entirely, even proudly, miss one of the central questions of the process of adaptation, which is the standards by which the final product is evaluated. film and writing are very different art forms and what works in one may well fail in another. (he does touch on this, in his brief commentary on writers who have proven notoriously difficult to adapt.) the question that comes up for the potential reviewer is whether the adapted version should be evaluated in comparison with the original, or with other examples of its own art form, i.e., is a film adaptation of a novel to be judged by its relationship to the novel, or to other films?

i'll fall back on a favourite example of mine: i think that brian de palma's adaptation of "the bonfire of the vanities" is one of the worst films ever made. i put it next to schlock classics like "plan 9 from outer space" and "leprechaun", films that at least had no pretensions to greatness, or even acceptability. that the film entirely fails as an adaptation of a novel-using the title and the names of some of the characters to convey a message that is entirely different, almost diametrically opposed, to the text on which it purports to be based, is a given. however, it is also a spectacular failure as a film, with dull-witted dialogue, hambone acting, and pedestrian cinematography. so when i say it's a horrible film, i can say so without having to reference its relationship to the original text.

not all examples are so clear-cut. "oliver!"- a doubly tricky subject, being a film adaptation of a theatrical musical adaptation of an acclaimed and popular novel- was, like rushdie's bête noir "slumdog millionaire", given the academy award for best picture. however, the musical undoubtedly guts the original book of much of its darker side- downplaying the squalor of the victorian london slums and adapting the character of fagin from a seedy, anti-semitic caricature to a seedy, but ultimately good-hearted avuncular figure. one could argue that the latter change actually makes it easier for a modern audience to appreciate the central themes of the story, by removing an ugly and racist distraction that was a product of its time. do the editorial changes make this film a bad adaptation or a successful one? does the fact that the film is based on a classic of british literature mean that it is taken more seriously as a film than other musicals would be? these are questions that relate intimately to the nature of an adapted work, but they don't seem to interest rushdie at all, despite the fact that he purports to be writing about the process of adaptation.

none of this discounts rushdie's entitlement to his own opinions. what i take issue with is his insistence on dressing those opinions up as some sort of objective fact by wrapping them in articulate language and hollow arguments. the subject might have yielded something more interesting than just a catalogue of "good" versus "bad" adaptations. perhaps rushdie chose to mail this one in because he's focused entirely on the task of adapting his own work, "midnight's children" as a screenplay to be filmed by deepa mehta. "We can only hope that the worst is over, and that better movies, better musicals and better times lie ahead." and better critical analysis, sir.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Haven't posted anything for a while and checked out your blog while I added to mine - the article you referenced has gone now - I would have liked to have read it. It's a shame that Rushdie has to do something like this, but it's not the first time I've noticed him have these brain farts that result in something that makes me wonder what he was thinking of.

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