Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Book love in the time of cinema”

Posted on May 2, 2014

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On Márquez. On language. On books. On movies made from them.

Such are the accelerated times we live in that I wondered, in a moment of panic, if this essay might be too late. It was spurred by the demise of Gabriel García Márquez on the afternoon of 17 April, a Thursday. But that was fifteen days ago. On Friday, as the news reached these shores, my Facebook timeline was filled with sad reminiscences about yellow butterflies and perfumed crows. A day later, however, the week’s big Bollywood release, 2 States, had begun “trending” – even Márquez had to give way to Bhagat. Imagine the irony. The author who kept reminding us of the vastness of time – those one hundred years of solitude; the bachelor who, after nine decades, decided to gift himself an adolescent virgin; the lifetime that Florentino Ariza spent waiting for Fermina Daza – was, post mortem, resuscitated in the social media for a mere twenty-four hours.

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Authors die, but they leave behind work that lives forever. There can, therefore, never be a too-late tribute to Márquez, who, with Nabokov, went to war against the distressing modern-day tendency to view language as a loincloth, a functional invention that went about its job in the least ostentatious manner. Language, to these writers, was a queen’s wardrobe of silks, and they celebrated its riches lavishly. We are advised, for instance, that alliteration is bad. Nabokov gave us, in successive sentences in Lolita, “globules of gonadal glow” and “Canoeing, Coranting, Combing Curls in the lakeside sun,” and Márquez, when recalling the first man Fermina Daza heard urinate, spoke of the “sound of his stallion’s stream.” I could carry on in this vein, but this is a column about cinema and it may be more pertinent to change tracks and revisit that old question: Can a movie hope to capture the essence of a book, especially when language is such a crucial component of the book’s essence?

Márquez didn’t think so. He said, in an interview, “I can’t think of any one film that improved on a good novel, but I can think of many good films that came from very bad novels.” The interiority of the novel is fundamentally at odds with the exteriority of cinema. The images in our heads as we read prose are half-formed – we see the people, the places, and yet we don’t. A playful form of malleability is at work here, and it vanishes the minute we see an actor in the part, or we see the setting, so vulgar in its finality. Our capacity to participate in the proceedings is diminished, as it’s no longer Humbert Humbert as we see him, but Humbert Humbert as James Mason plays him, in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita. Of course, cinema has its own kind of interiority, in its pauses and in its approximations of thoughts that we can no longer read about to decipher, but we are allowed this participation only after a certain kind of scaffolding is already in place, one built by the actors and the director and the technicians. With a book, on the other hand, we are the architects of the edifice.

Still, if we replace the question “Is this film a good adaptation of the book?” with “How does this director go about adapting this book?” – in other words, if we replace judgement with inquiry – the movie may end up worthwhile after all, if not an exact reproduction of the book, then perhaps a version of the book, one that exists honourably in a parallel dimension. Lolita is certainly one of those films for me, and its opening scene is among my favourite of all time. The book opens with the famous words: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” The movie opens with a man’s hand applying nail polish on a woman’s toes over a swooning piano score. Humbert Humbert’s devotion to Lolita, his servitude, his thralldom to her beauty, his helplessness, his obsession, his intent to shape her in the image he carries inside his perverted head – the themes of the novel are all here, in under two minutes. Even if we don’t hear the words “light of my life, fire of my loins,” we sense them.

Márquez, I think, would have approved of this film. At least, he would have been happier with Kubrick’s struggle with Nabokov than with Mike Newell’s attempt to put Love in the Time of Cholera on screen. Márquez’s first chapter is ostensibly about the death of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, but it is also about so much else: the scent of bitter almonds, a corpse under investigation, the old slave quarter, the parrot that learned to speak French like an academician, Fermina Daza’s loss of the doe’s gait of her younger years, the couple’s “trivial everyday miseries,” and a few dozen other things, including Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. A film that stayed faithful to all these details would never end, and yet, it’s in what the filmmaker chooses to keep and what he leaves out that we get a glimpse of the film’s eventual success or failure. Newell opens with the parrot on a tree. Dr. Urbino climbs a ladder. He falls. He dies. Where Kubrick gave us mood, Newell gives us plot. A queen’s wardrobe is reduced to a loincloth.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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