Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Salman Rushdie: On Celluloid Adaptation of Novels

A Fine Pickle
by Salman Rushdie
Guardian UK

I'm currently teaching a course that highlights some of the instances in which fine books have been adapted into fine films - Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence mutated into Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence; Giuseppe di Lampedusa's portrait of Sicily in 1860, The Leopard, turned into Luchino Visconti's greatest film; Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood became a wonderful John Huston movie; and, in his film of Great Expectations, Lean produced a classic that can stand alongside the Dickens novel without any sense of inferiority, a film that allows this film-goer, at least, to forgive him for the later blunders of A Passage to India.

There are many other examples of successful adaptation. Few people these days read Jan Potocki's 19th-century Franco-Polish masterpiece The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, but I urge you to discover it for its playfulness and bizarrerie, its surreal, supernatural, gothic, picaresque world of Gypsies, thieves, hallucinations, inquisitions and a pair of unbelievably beautiful sisters who are, unfortunately for the men they seduce, only ghosts. Its qualities are perfectly captured by the Polish film director Wojciech Has in his 1965 film The Saragossa Manuscript, which you should seek out at once. Satyajit Ray's 1955 film Pather Panchali ("The Song of the Little Road") not only equalled but bettered the 1929 Bengali classic by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadyahya from which it was adapted. Huston seems to have been a particularly gifted adapter of good literature, and his film of Joyce's "The Dead", perhaps the greatest short story in the English language, brings it vividly, passionately to life; although right at the end, when the camera moves out through a window to watch the falling snow, and Joyce's famous words take over from Huston's images, speaking of the snow that was falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead, we are reminded of the difference between excellence and genius. The Dead is an excellent film, but the last lines of Joyce's story surpass it effortlessly.

The question raised by the adaptive excesses of Adaptation is the question at the heart of the entire subject of adaptation - that is to say, the question of essence. "Poetry is what gets lost in translation," said Robert Frost, but Joseph Brodsky retorted: "Poetry is what is gained in translation," and the battle-lines could not be more clearly drawn. My own view has always been that whether we are talking about a poem moving across a language border to become another poem in another tongue, a book crossing the frontier between the world of print and celluloid, or human beings migrating from one world to another, both Frost and Brodsky are right. Something is always lost in translation; and yet something can also be gained. I am defining adaptation very broadly, to include translation, migration and metamorphosis, all the means by which one thing becomes another. In my novel Midnight's Children the narrator Saleem discusses the making of pickles as this sort of adaptive process: "I reconcile myself," he says, "to the inevitable distortions of the pickling process. To pickle is to give immortality, after all: fish, vegetables, fruit hang embalmed in spice-and-vinegar; a certain alteration, a slight intensification of taste, is a small matter, surely? The art is to change the flavour in degree, but not in kind; and above all (in my thirty jars and a jar) to give it shape and form - that is to say, meaning."

The question of essences remains at the heart of the adaptive act: how to make a second version of a first thing, of a book or film or poem or vegetable, or of yourself, that is successfully its own, new thing and yet carries with it the essence, the spirit, the soul of the first thing, the thing that you yourself, or your book or poem or film or your pre-pickle mango or lime, originally were.

Is it impossible? Is the intangible in our arts and our natures, the space between our words, the things seen in between the things shown, inevitably discarded in the remaking process, and if so can it be filled up with other spaces, other visions, that satisfy or even enrich us enough so that we do not mind the loss? To look at adaptation in this broad-spectrum way, to take it beyond the realm of art into the rest of life, is to see that all the meanings of the word deal with the question of what is essential - in a work adapted to another form, in an individual adapting to a new home, in a society adapting to a new age. What do you preserve? What do you jettison? What is changeable, and where must you draw the line? The questions are always the same, and the way we answer them determines the quality of the adaptation, of the book, the poem, or of our own lives.


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