Million-dollar question

by David Pullar

5 March 2009


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?

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