Salman Rushidie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children is his most beloved book. It was hailed as the best recipient of the Booker Prize in that literary award’s first 25 years, and Penguin has included Midnight’s Children in its Great Books of the 20th Century series, which also includes The Grapes of Wrath, On the Road, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Heart of Darkness.
Condensing a book like Midnight’s Children into a feature film is a difficult task. Not only is it long, but it’s also discursive, digressive, and poetic, which are qualities that don’t translate to the screen. Rushdie himself wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation, which meant there was some hope for creating a work that does the novel justice.
Unfortunately, not even Rushdie can give his book its due on the big screen, but that’s no slight against him. It’s just the difficult nature of some literary adaptations, and maybe some books are better left as books.
Director: Deepa Mehta
Release Date: April 26, 2013
In a lot of ways, Midnight’s Children is unadaptable. It’s such a massive story, for one — a generational family saga that braids into a tale of India’s independence; a work of history and magical realism and play with language. At the center of the story is Saleem Sinai (played as an adult in the film by Satya Bhabha), a child born at the exact moment that India gained its independence. He narrates the film, which is the closest a movie can ever get to first-person narration. The children in India born between midnight and 1:00am that night were imbued with special abilities, sort of like superheroes, a metaphor for the potential of this moment in India’s history.
Sinai’s ability rests in his massive nose: through this nose, he’s able to contact and join all of the children of midnight, in hopes that they can all communicate with each other and make the country a better place despite such vast differences in culture and power. It’s such a bizarre but beautiful conceit, but it’s just the surface of the book. There are also massive conflicts with other countries, families separated by different drives and allegiances, commentaries on class, explorations of religion, commentaries on dung.
Sinai’s unique place in all this tumult of history and culture is as an intermediary, and not just between these children of midnight. He is a constant outsider because he is never quite in one camp or another — an in-betweener like his grandfather in a lot of ways — and in many cases, the outsiders with these sorts of predicaments have a gift of observation and insight. They are always looking around them from a center rather than looking out from a fixed position. It’s true in literature, it’s true in many films, and I suspect it’s also true in real life. The best artists may be the people who are in the in-between, which allows them to consider various points of view without the need to dominate any of them.
I re-read a little of Midnight’s Children for the first time in years before writing this review, and what’s striking about the book is how it can do whatever it wants. The novel jumps back and forth in time. Like a magic trick, it insinuates ideas here and there invisibly and does little bits of narrative sleight of hand through flashback and flash forward and mentions of present action. There’s a freedom of language at work which captures the thought process of Saleem, the nature of history and memory, and a genuine sense of personality, voice, and poetry. It’s a book that does what books can do best with language.
As a film, Midnight’s Children unfortunately loses all of that texture and beauty — we’re left with a sari without a pattern or magnificence; a chutney that doesn’t taste like the chutney that mom used to make. All the poetry of Sinai’s narrative gets traded in for plot, and even Sinai’s voiceover seems out of place in the film. It overexplicates the themes and feels overbearing, while in the book the voice is just right. And all the amusing digression in the novel that added a sense of heft to the family histories is mostly shorn away. Rushdie has streamlined his story but to detriment of the story.
It doesn’t help that there’s a bizarre smallness to the production. Rushdie had originally written a teleplay for a five-part BBC miniseries adaptation of Midnight’s Children that never got made, and this feature film sometimes feels like a television miniseries that’s been condensed into a two-and-a-half hour movie. It’s hard to get the right amount of production value to mount a story like Midnight’s Children, and to director Deepa Mehta’s credit, he tries his best with what he has. There’s one sequence in India much later in the film that’s executed with the anarchic color and verve of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, which obviously wins some kudos from me, but the majority of the movie has a very basic visual style, and a very clean look rather than a lived-in one. History, both of a family and of a nation, is supposed to feel lived-in.
Maybe the biggest difficulty with literary adaptations is just the nature of source material and medium and how they fit together. A story like Midnight’s Children is probably best suited to be a book just because of what language allows Rushdie to do with information, history, and poetic flourishes. There is no equivalent in film for this. Since Sinai’s nose is so important to the story, smells and tastes are vivid, and written language can convey all five senses effectively while cinematic language is predominantly restricted to the visual, the aural, and occasionally the tactile. Though cinematic language operates so much differently than textual language, some movies just fall short because of the quality of the source material is so much better than the film could ever be. I still like Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, but the book makes the movie look like amateur hour simply because of the power and beauty of Vladimir Nabokov’s writing.
If Midnight’s Children was more of a straightforward plot-based narrative, maybe a better adaptation would be possible, though it would still be extremely abridged. A lot of the film adaptations that work best tend to be ones where the books aren’t really great books in their own right. Think Jaws or Jurassic Park, for instance. On the other hand, some adaptations work best when they just find the way to convert the book into film language (maybe To Kill a Mockingbird), or deconstruct the book and remake it something that shares in the same spirit (maybe the Lord of the Rings books or, an extreme example, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch).
The experience of the film will be different for a person who hasn’t read Midnight’s Children, but I suspect a similar sort of lacuna for these viewers as well. As a book, though dense and complex, there’s a rapturous sense of beauty in Midnight Children from the very beginning that rarely lets up. As a film, Midnight’s Children is watchable but not wholly captivating, and it doesn’t have the sense of urgency that Sinai has as a character in the book: this is a story that is important, and it must be told, and it must be shared.