Remade to perfection

The widely praised, hugely popular thriller, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, is presently being filmed with David Fincher as director, and Rosamund Pike as the heroine.

 Flynn herself is writing the screenplay. In perhaps several decades that I can remember, Gone Girl is the first thriller to be so enthusiastically embraced by readers and critics. The book has many fans and just as many literary critics admiring it, all of them now wondering if the movie will kill the book or make something even better out of it.

Hollywood has been notorious for making lousy movies out of great books and good movies out of lousy books. But a new breed of script-writers/filmmakers are impatient with purists who keep harping on about ‘fidelity to the book’ or those who feel that the movie never lives up to the book. The approach of contemporary filmmakers adapting books today is not to ask “How can I be faithful to the book?” but “How can I make this novel my own?” A good example of this approach lies closer home — Dev Benegal’s hip adaptation of English August.  Upamanyu Chatterjee’s comic, irreverent satire of Indian bureaucracy is like R K Narayan on pot. It’s a hallucinatory take off on small town Indian life. It is also a witty exploration of the kind of culture clash so many of us are only too familiar with: urban, shallow, modern August vs rural, authentic India. 

Fans of the book wondered how it could be filmed at all, but Benegal and Chatterjee (who co-wrote the script) approached the book much the same way Hollywood scriptwriters have now begun to — by playing around with the chronology of the narrative, taking sudden but inspired departures and arriving at the heart of the novel. Ever since Benegal’s triumphant adaptation, book lovers and movie-buffs have been keeping their fingers crossed, hoping other filmmakers will take their cue from English August and turn to other Indian novels that are wilting on the shelf, just waiting to be animated on film.  Hollywood has always mined the classics for good scripts. Perhaps it’s easier to watch a classic than read one — but it’s also because the audience is growing tired of special effects and would rather see something nice that is not going to explode and shatter their nerves. The recent reboots of Anna Karenina (done like an intimate stage play rather than a sprawling epic), Jane Austen, Bronte and Thackeray (Mira Nair’s inspired ending for Vanity Fair: bringing the heroine to India) have made literary classics as much hot property as bestsellers. 

In an earlier decade, the most celebrated movies — critically and commercially — wasn’t only a Tom Cruise or Marvel comic blockbuster but Henry James’s Wings of the Dove with Helena Boham Carter, Austen’s Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, Hardy’s Jude with Kate Winslet, Jane Campion’s adaptation of James’s Portrait of a Lady with Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer and all the Merchant-Ivory retreads. 

In many cases, the movie version of those bestsellers from the 90s too turned out to be more fun than the books they were based on. Sydney Pollock’s The Firm was more polished than the Grisham novel. Phillip Noyce’s Clear and Present Danger is a taut, gripping adaptation of the fat, sprawling Tom Clancy tome, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption improved on the original Stephen King novella and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs was as good as, if not better, than Thomas Harris’s groundbreaking thriller. 

As for Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, opinion, if you remember, was divided: those who loved the book didn’t think much of the film and those who loathed it (The New Yorker magazine called it the “worst book written in living memory”) actually came out of theatres after watching Eastwood’s adaptation saying “It wasn’t so bad, really”. Ditto for The Horse Whisperer and Message In a Bottle.

They’ve also just announced that Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch will be a movie, and fans have been casting their favourite roles (just as we all did with The Secret History which puzzlingly remains unfilmed): this is another case I feel where readers who didn’t enjoy the book will end up liking the film version, and devotees of Tart will come away cursing, and probably feel thankful that The Secret History has been left alone. 

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