Trinny in Jozi

Q&A and Slumdog Millionaire

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During my first year of varsity I took a wonderful course called Film and Literature. Or perhaps it was Literature and Film. Whatever the title, I have a suspicion it doesn´t exist anymore, which is a pity. As a confirmed bibliophile, I´m always* likely to choose the book over the film. And to be unreasonably upset when the film, in my opinion, is a travesty. But the course did prompt me to think about the nature of translation. For a film to capture the spirit of a novel, it doesn´t have to adhere slavishly to details or structure. Quite the opposite: a rendering that is too literal can be clumsy.

And that´s why I´m going to try, probably unsuccessfully,  not to  make any judgment calls about whether Q&A is better (or worse) than Slumdog Millionaire

I read the novel long enough ago to have forgotten all but the basic plot by the time I saw the film. I vaguely recalled that the love story was played up in the film, and that was about it. I loved the story, and its execution, in both media, and couldn´t understand when friends insisted the book was better.

But then I went back to the novel, and realised just how much the film deviates from the original plot, if not the structure. I´m not going to list all the differences, but you can click here if you´re interested.

Initially, I felt the film had perfectly captured the feel of the book. But on my second reading, I had, um, second thoughts.

Most of the stories that “explain” how Jamal Malik (Ram Mohammed Thomas in the book) knew the answers to the questions on the quiz show have been changed. As in they´re completely different stories. And I don´t understand why. The way the stories build on each other in the novel actually leads to a much deeper characterisation and character motivation. And although both the film and the book have something magical about them, in that you´re asked to suspend your disbelief, the novel is just that little bit more plausible, and real. 

The film has a lot going for it. The cinematography, the editing, and the soundtrack, to name just three facets. It´s a brilliant story, in its own right. But, what I can´t help feeling is, given the novel it was based on,
couldn´t it have been *even better*? 

Hey, I´m an editor. I like tinkering with people´s words and ideas. But it´s not about putting your own imprint on a story (or a film script for that matter) just for the sake of it. I know film and print are different media. But I can´t help feeling the changes should only be made to aid the translation between them. Slumdog Millionaire, I´m afraid, changed for the sake of it or rather, for the sake of the Hollywood dollar.

Q&A´s tranmogrification into Slumdog Millionaire also reminds me of another course I took at varsity: The Philosophy of Art and Literature, which for the record, does still exist. One of the texts we studied was Jorge Luis Borges´ Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote. I couldn´t summarise this philosophical premise adequately (or perhaps it´s just that laziness strikes again), so you can read the full text here.

But at the end of the fable, which essentially has Borges positing a certain Pierre Menard writing (not copying, not rewriting, but writing) his own Don Quixote, which is the same, at least in terms of the actual words (if not their meaning) as Cervantes´ Don Quixote, Borges leaves us with these thoughts:

“Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution. This technique, whose applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure of Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?”

So what I´m asking is, after seeing Slumdog Millionaire, is it possible to read Q&A (or rather, to read Slumdog Millionaire, as the novel is titled in its latest imprint) without acknowledging the film as its predecessor? The post-film reading certainly enriched the novel for me. Ram Mohammed Thomas falling in love with a prostitute was a cliche, originally. But Ram Mohammed Thomas appearing on a gameshow with the aim of winning the cash to free his lover from her pimp had a lot more resonance than Jamal Malik appearing on a gameshow just hoping that his long-lost love would see him on television.

How do those of you who´ve read the film or seen the movie or, even better, done both, feel? Mim is going to see a screening of Slumdog Millionaire  next week where Vikas Swarup will be talking, so I´ll be interested to hear his take on the film as well. 

* Well, almost always – The Virgin Suicides being a notable exception.

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