Salman Rushdie adapts his own Booker prize-winning novel into a shocking mess-of-a-movie.
While his wonderful monograph on The Wizard of Oz for the BFI Film Classics series might provide the clearest of clues, even a passing familiarity with Salman Rushdie's writing would reveal a dedicated cinephilic impulse inescapably woven into the fabric of almost all of his work.
From the naming of characters (tragic diplomat Max Ophüls in 'Shalimar the Clown', a M. Hulot in 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet', the eponymous Chekov & Zulu), to the worlds they inhabit (the fallen TV and film stars of 'The Satanic Verses', the respective Bollywoods and Hollywoods of 'The Free Radio' and 'At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers'), Rushdie's recurring cinematic allusions span an entire career.
A gifted image-maker on the page, the big screen can't have been far from Rushdie's mind as he wrote his Booker (and Booker of Bookers) Prize winning novel, Midnight's Children in 1989. The movies appear as much a part of him and his protagonist as they do his India, a country for whom he was sculpting a new, parallel narrative out of history and imagination.
In Rushdie’s Tolstoyan social spectrum, filtered through the magic-realist lens of a Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, the cinema becomes an integrated means of processing the unimaginable: when a boy spies on his mother’s affair through a café window, it’s through the "dirty, glass square of a cinema screen". Or to describe a city on fire, "I insert turbulent long-shots of street riots, medium shots of burning buses…".
But wrestling his behemoth towards the screen itself remained far from straight forward. A frustrated attempt at a BBC mini-series had already stumped those involved, with only a mixed media, RSC stage production in 2003 making some headway in solving the inherent difficulties in bringing such an all-encompassing, expressively symbolic take on a nation’s modern history to life.
So who better to facilitate the ultimate leap to screen than this most cine-literate of authors himself? Coaxed into screenplay duties by Deepa Mehta, a director made famous for her tabloid baiting Elements trilogy, this coalition of controversy at first glance appears as smart a bet as the novel was likely to find.
That the resulting film should finally represent not just a model of narrative incoherence and disjointed, disconnected historical reductionism, but such a comprehensive disembowelling of all that made the novel shine, induces shock more than simply surprise. As a film, Midnight’s Children is simply bad. As an adaptation, it’s an unqualified disaster.
Problems are legion. Gone is the ambiguous framing device of the unreliable narrator, misremembering and repurposing historical events to mischievous, symbolic effect. Now it’s replaced by an on-the-nose literalism, intermittently and inconsistently intoned by none other than Rushdie himself.
The first person perspective of the narration remains, but it serves merely to bridge gaps in character and narrative, describing what should be delivered through image or performance.
It’s a film that lacks any sense of focus. We never truly get to know any of the characters, motivation being a scarce commodity. So eager is Rushdie to rush between dramatic peaks (or what were dramatic peaks in his novel) that they become meaningless, disconnected sequences. It’s an experience akin to watching a TV series, albeit one with episodes missing.
In the novel, personal and national histories are inextricably linked. The children of the title, born in the first hour of India’s independence, telepathically connected to our narrator and representative of hopes for a better future, here have their gifts reduced to superpowers of irrelevant consequence.
Historical events and societal concerns that were mirrored in those of Saleem and his extended family – both literally and metaphorically – here serve as mere punctuation. History is sketched in the background instead of being fully integrated into the fabric of Saleem’s narrative, leaving the connection vague at best, devoid of meaning the rest of the time.
Not all problems can be laid at Rushdie’s feet, as many of Mehta’s choices proving equally damaging. For a novel awash with evocative images, Mehta finds none to call her own, often managing to botch even those she lifts wholesale. A doctor, examining his female patient through a small hole in a sheet at the insistence of her father, falls as flat in longshot. As does a later 'indirect kiss', described by Rushdie as "pregnant with longing and eroticism", delivered by Mehta as an awkward exercise in literal scene-blocking.
Establishing landscape shots often set a scene quite beautifully (the Second Unit are Midnight’s Children’s real stars), but Mehta’s directorial decisions are as sweeping and generic, as broad and non-specific as many of the actors’ performances.
In his novel, Rushdie painted a scene with immaculate, delicate strokes, Mehta attacks her canvas with a roller-on-a-stick. Rushdie’s evocation of Bombay as ‘multitudinously shapeless’ takes on new meaning in light of much of the restless handheld photography at play.
In adapting a novel so thematically and narratively dense for the screen, it was inevitable that much would have to go. Yet in trying to say everything in its 137 minutes, it ends up saying very little at all, as bereft of meaning in its loose sketching as it finally is of feeling.
On the basis of Rushdie’s magnificent novel, hopes may well have been high, but as the author aptly states in the film’s final moments, in the end "the truth has been less glorious than the dream".
This is the one that Rushdie fans have been waiting for.
Lacks soul, imagination and even basic logic.
A bona fide right off.