Emory Report
March 2, 2009
Volume 61, Number 22

At the movies
The Office of the Provost and the Department of Film Studies are hosting screenings through March of four films made from great novels. At each screening, Salman Rushdie will briefly introduce the film.

The series will wrap up with a campus forum on film and literature with Rushdie and Film Studies Chair Matthew Bernstein March 19 at 4 p.m. in Cannon Chapel.

For details, visit www.filmstudies.emory.edu.



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March 2
, 2009
Rushdie on the leap from page to stage

By Kim Urquhart

“Adaptation can be a powerful creative as well as destructive force,” Salman Rushdie told those gathered in Glenn Memorial Feb. 22 for his sold-out lecture, “Adaptation.” The celebrated author considered “the strange process” whereby books get turned into plays and plays turned into movies, where good movies are remade as bad movies, and bad movies are remade as worse movies. But not all is lost in translation: The course Emory’s Distinguished Writer in Residence is teaching this semester focuses on good books transformed into fine movies.

It was the eve of Oscar Night, just hours before “Slumdog Millionaire” won Best Picture. Rushdie treated the audience to witty — and in the case of “Slumdog” — provocative critiques of the Academy Award-nominated films adapted from print.

On the Oscar-nominated films:

On one end is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” inspired by a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “To call the movie an adaptation is to strain to the limit the meaning of the word adaptation,” said Rushdie. Despite fine acting performances by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, the film “doesn’t finally have anything to say” — quite unlike Fitzgerald’s satirical social commentary on turn-of-the-century America, he said.

On the opposite end of the adaptation spectrum stands “The Reader,” a film he described as “extremely faithful” to Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel. In fact, a little too faithful for Rushdie’s taste.

He opined that the film rendering of “a terrible book” produced a “fairly lifeless and leaden movie killed by respectability.”

He then moved on to his much-publicized comments about “Slumdog”: A film based on “a corny and dreadfully written pop novel” with an impossible plot “faithfully preserved by the filmmakers.”

On what he’s teaching:

Rushdie’s graduate English seminar is examining four great novels made into great films: Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” Giovanni Di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”

He told the audience about trying to find films for his class that disprove the argument all films made from books are inferior. For example: “No Country for Old Men,” he said is “a film that keeps astonishingly close to Cormac McCarthy’s novel.”

On his experience with adaptation:

Rushdie’s 1981 novel “Midnight’s Children” — recently voted the greatest Booker Prizewinner in the history of the award — successfully went from page to the stage for a British theater adaptation. The dramatic interpretation by director Tim Supple was “powerful and effective, while remaining true to the book,” Rushdie said. “I came to think of the play as a sort of second cousin of the book, or perhaps its illegitimate child — it’s relative, not its mirror image.”

But his novels have yet to be made into films. Several “abortive attempts” to film “Midnight’s Children” taught him much about the challenge of preserving the essence of a novel, he said. He’s currently at work on a promising project with director Deepa Mehta.

On what makes a quality adaptation:

We can learn much from the filmmakers who turn words on the page into images on the screen, and from all those who carry across one thing into another state, he said.

Adaptation works best when it is a genuine transaction between the old and the new, when the essence of what is being adapted — whether a book crossing the frontier between print and cinema, or a human being migrating from one world to another — “can leap the gulf and shine again in a different light,” he said.

“As individuals, as communities, as nations, we are the constant adapters of ourselves,” Rushdie said. Like artistic adaptation, he said, the process of social, cultural and individual adaptation must be free if it is to succeed.