The interplay between cinema and literature is as old as the medium of celluloid.
For me, Clarke Gable is Rhett Butler. And Scarlett O’ Hara, heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, is personified by Vivien Leigh, with her dazzling eyes, impish smile and, of course, that tiny waist. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first.
When I read the book, though, I experienced the richness of detail about the American civil war and life in that era and the additional layers to Mitchell’s characters — all of which were lost in the cinematic version. However, I had to admit that just by sheer casting and characterization, the filmmaker had made a masterpiece, true to the original to the best of his ability.guide
That isn’t always the case unfortunately. Even celebrated films like Guide, based on R.K. Narayan’s novel, pale in comparison to the original work. The characterization of Rosie was a fine performance by Waheeda Rahman. But read the book and you find the cinematic version only a shadow of her literary genesis, devoid of the many textures and nuances that make her one of the most enthralling characters in literature.
Arundhati Roy has refused to let her Booker winning The God of Small Things to be filmed, despite offers galore, unwilling perhaps to see her finely etched characters distorted. Therein lies the rub. Will a writer ever be satisfied with the handling of his precious creation by another? One way is for the author to become involved himself with the adaptation of his work and impart his views and vision to the director.
But let’s not forget that cinema, too, is an art form. A good film can be a study in eloquence and a director is an artist, nurturing and structuring his vision to bring it to the viewer. His right to exercise creativity cannot be overlooked.
Another important factor is the role of cinema in popularizing literature. In an age where books are losing their relevance to many, with it becoming increasingly difficult to get youngsters to pick up a book, cinema can play a crucial part in reviving interest in literature.
Perhaps a little creative license to update a literary classic and make it relevant to the modern age is not a bad thing. After all, if the film is made well, and does well, the original will get far more readers from the younger generation than it otherwise would have. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility are examples of literature that has been revived and repopularised, thanks to excellent adaptations and star casting.
The interplay between cinema and literature is as old as the medium of celluloid. And it will continue as long as there are good books to read and filmmakers with the vision to translate them into movies.
There will be controversy, and criticism. But however good, or bad, an adaptation, one must remember that the original will always remain; it cannot be obliterated or erased by the existence of its celluloid version. Writers can take heart from this. And realize that for their works to reach a wider audience, they must be open to interpretation.
This opinion was first published in Meghdutam between 1999 – 2003.
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