David Wain—the rarely disputed king of absurd comedy—is having a busy month. According to his (always-entertaining) blog, he’s currently shooting new episodes of his series Wainy Days and promoting the March 10 DVD release of Role Models. We live in hope that he’s using the remaining time and energy to expedite the DVD release of The State, which has been held hostage by MTV for well over a decade.
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There are movies based on books that encourage people to go back to the source material and others where it’s almost irrelevant. They might as well have been based on the doodle a studio exec drew on his napkin at lunch.
Even after winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (and everything else), Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t seem to have driven a surge of interest in Vikas Swarup’s “Q&A” (now republished with the film’s title). In fact, not many people seem to be aware of the film’s literary origins at all.
Unlike Revolutionary Road, which had a long history of readership and acclaim prior to adaptation, Q&A is a recent book without much pedigree. I read it as part of a book group on its release in 2005 and was fairly unimpressed. Swarup paces the book well and the situations and plot arcs are colourful and enjoyable enough. The problem is that it’s all pretty implausible and a bit silly at times.
The reason why Danny Boyle’s film is more effective than Q&A is that it takes the novel’s absurd concept and elevates it to symbolic fantasy. The original novel’s problem was that the thriller-like tone seemed at odds with the fanciful plot arcs.
Salman Rushdie agrees, calling Q&A “a corny potboiler, with a plot that defies belief”. He goes further, arguing that Slumdog is just as absurd as its source material.
Well that’s true enough. After all, what is the likelihood of a chaiwallah from the Mumbai slums winning a quiz show based on the fortuitous coincidence of each question relating directly to a life event? Effectively zero, you would think.
Yet all plots are contrived to suit the ends of the writer, and most require some suspension of disbelief. Rushdie’s own works like Midnight’s Children and The Ground Beneath Her Feet are completely ridiculous from any rationalist standpoint—but we accept the implausibility because it opens us up to some greater truth.
Slumdog’s message isn’t nearly as profound as most Rushdie works (it’s mostly that “life teaches you things”). Yet it’s also an homage to the classic rags to riches tales of Hollywood and Bollywood, plot contrivances and all. We want to be swept up in the romance and we’re not going to be too worried about probability.
It’s been said that good novels make bad films and bad novels make good films. It’s definitely true that what makes a great novel is often the use of language and the insights into people’s interior worlds—things that translate poorly to film. And many trashy novels, owing too much as they do to Hollywood romance and suspense, sometimes make an easier transition to the screen.
Do you agree? Do you find your favourite novels are butchered? Do you enjoy movies where you’d never dream of picking up the original novel?
In the TLS Ritchie Robertson reviews Timothy W. Ryback’s Hitler’s Private Library, whose subtitle promises “the books that shaped his life.” Not surprisingly, these turn out to be mainly anti-Semitic screeds and pseudoscientific works of racial typology. Robertson makes special note of his apparent disinterest in imaginative fiction:
The other striking absence is literature. According to Oechsner, Hitler owned all the Wild West adventure stories by Karl May, all the detective fiction of Edgar Wallace, and many love stories by Hedwig Courths-Mahler (a German Barbara Cartland), but nothing that could send the imagination along unfamiliar tracks. Hitler’s mental world seems to have had no place for imagination. Instead, he relied on a naive conception of science, on which he claimed that National Socialism was based.
This struck me as humanistic claptrap, the sort of conclusion tailor-made for literature professors who believe that teaching students to appreciate, say, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and the Brontë sisters will prevent them from becoming little Hitlers themselves. We mustn’t lack the imagination to bathe ourselves in the comfortable moral truths extracted from the Great Books by tweedy pedants. The insult that reading genre fiction somehow proves one’s lack of imagination is especially gallling, as though all those Harlequin romance readers running their minds along “familiar tracks” are implicitly emotional fascists. Apparently, we are to believe that there is a good kind of imaginative projection that involves novelty, linguistic games, and catering to the upper-middle class tastes, and a bad kind that sticks close-minded readers in a vicarious rut. Could there be a better put-down for someone else’s tastes than, “Oh, that’s the sort of thing Hitler liked”?
I don’t know. There’s a good chance you can read and enjoy Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, or whichever author is nominated as a standard-bearer for the human spirit, and still be a fascist. The more important question is whether Hitler would have considered this literary book worth reading.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
A book called A New Awakening by Eckhart Tolle.
2. The fictional character most like you?
I’m a character myself.
3. The greatest album, ever?
There’s 50 great albums . I listen to something one day and it’s the greatest I ever heard. Then the next day I hear something different I love just as much.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
The Twilight Zone.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Emotionally touching events which these days could be just about everything.
Baltimore’s electronic mad man Dan Deacon adds some more traditional orchestral instruments to his usual laptop shenanigans on his new album Bromst. Due out later this month, the album can be streamed now through NPR Music’s First Listen.
// Notes from the Road
"Co-presented by the World Music Institute, the 92Y hosted a rare and mesmerizing performance from India's violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam.READ the article