To adapt his 600-page masterpiece of magical realism for the screen, Salman Rushdie broke out his chisel
Author Chris Wright
“TO UNDERSTAND JUST ONE LIFE,” Salman Rushdie wrote in Midnight’s Children, “you have to swallow the world.” While the British author didn’t quite swallow the world in his 1980 Booker Prize-winning novel, he did manage to get down a large chunk of it.
Midnight’s Children spans 60 years of India’s history, exploring the country’s pre- and postcolonial landscape along with such themes as religion, culture and family, with smatterings of violence, romance, farce and fantasy thrown in. And if that seems like a lot to cover in one book, imagine cramming it all into 146 minutes.
This is the job Rushdie faced when he set out to adapt Midnight’s Children for the screen. First, though—given that he’d written the book 30 years earlier—he had to sit down and read it. “It’s a much younger man’s book, so that was interesting,” he says. “Looking at innocence through the eyes of experience.”
As for deciding what to cut, Rushdie found that to be relatively easy. “Michelangelo used to say that when he was sculpting a statue from a block of marble, he simply took away everything that was not the statue,” he says. “Writing the screenplay was something like that. If the novel was the block of marble, the screenplay was the statue hidden within it.”
That may be so, but it’s also true that Michelangelo didn’t have a producer looking over his shoulder muttering about the price of marble, or directors and actors with their own take on whether David needed a fig leaf. Writing, like sculpting, is a personal, subjective act, and even in this environment Rushdie has had his share of scrapes over the years. Did the collaborative nature of filmmaking agree with him?
“Fortunately, Deepa [Mehta, the director] and I established a good, open, happy working relationship, and that made it fun,” Rushdie says. “There’s always spirited debate in any moviemaking process. But nobody ever yelled at anyone. Imagine that: years of passionate work and no fights. Strange but true.”
Midnight’s Children refers to 1,001 children born in the hour of India’s independence, each of whom is endowed with a special power. The book’s narrator, Saleem, is telepathic, while others can do things like walk into mirrors, change size, multiply fish, eat metal and inflict injuries with mere words.
In this sense, Midnight’s Children is a precursor to “Heroes,” “Misfits” and a slew of other TV shows featuring kids with supernatural abilities. Does Rushdie blame himself? “I’ve heard people comparing Midnight’s Children to those TV shows you mention,” he says. “I’m not sure if I started it. After all, I read Superman comics as a kid.”
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