Million-dollar question

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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As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

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"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

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There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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