Essence of the journey

Essence of the journey

THE path of literary successes from page to screen is littered with failed films and aggrieved authors.

A scene from the film, Brick Lane, starring Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen.

So much so that there’s a Hollywood truism that bad books make good movies and good books make bad movies.

Of course, there are exceptions: recent Oscar winners No Country for Old Men and Atonement, for example. Yet even they have their critics.

No Country for Old Men highlights the two key problems in adapting literary works. The first the Coen brothers had to overcome was transferring Cormac McCarthy’s very particular mood and phrasing into their own cinematic mood and pace. So many others fail at that kind of transition.

The other problem is often insurmountable: how do you convince fans of a book (and even the author) that a film version can be faithful to its origin?

English director Sarah Gavron faced both obstacles in adapting Monica Ali’s Man Booker prize-nominated novel, Brick Lane.

Even worse, Ali’s tale about a Bangladeshi woman, Nazneen, who moves to inner London at the age of 18 and marries an incompatible older man, Chanu, had attracted its own controversies. It was derided by sections of London’s Bangladeshi community for its perceived negative portrayal of the Sylhetis, or Bengali Muslims, particularly its view of a most patriarchal society.

Brick LaneGavron managed to forge past the many hurdles. "It was certainly very challenging to make at every stage so it’s a relief to get to this point and satisfying to get audience reactions and just have it out there," she says.

The reaction to it has been more than pleasing. Brick Lane has picked up plaudits at festivals, including awards at the San Sebastian and Dinard festivals, and affirmation from the author that it was true to the spirit of her book.

"From the beginning it wasn’t easy distilling this 500-page novel and satisfying its myriad fans," Gavron says of the best-selling novel, which covers two decades in Nazneen’s life. The filmmaker’s approach was to capture the spirit of the novel.

Her job was aided by Australian Laura Jones, quite an expert in adapting literary works. Among Jones’s achievements are screenplays made of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table for director Jane Campion, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda for Gillian Armstrong and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes for Alan Parker.

"She did a brilliant job cutting the novel into its shape," says Gavron. "Because she was so far away though (in Australia), and we realised we had to have a daily interaction with the Bangladeshi community, we brought in Abi Morgan, who’s a really research-based writer, to help. It was an interesting collaboration with Laura; she’s such a generous writer and egoless in a great way."

Gavron admits she and her writers felt a "daunting" obligation to deliver not only something the novel’s fans could embrace but something that would work as a piece of cinema. Hence their focus on the latter sections of the novel and Nazneen’s life: the character’s emotional life changes dramatically through the prism of the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

"When we got to that point it was a revelation for us, but it does mean of course there are casualties," Gavron says of the missing parts of the book’s plot.

"You hope what you’ve held on to is the essence. What was satisfying in a way was Monica Ali saying she felt we’d captured the spirit of the book."

Initially, Ali separated herself from the film’s production, partly to protect herself, Gavron believes. She was brought into the process when a rough cut of the film was available; the author’s input at that later stage proved to be helpful.

Others weren’t so kind. After spending eight months working closely with the London Bangladeshi community, the producers received a threat four weeks into filming, saying any filming at Brick Lane would result in people being hurt.

The threat was made by a small group of Bengali traders determined to protect the reputation of the community living in Britain’s best-known Asian street.

"Filmmaking is such a machine, we didn’t stop, we just relocated," says Gavron.

The threat was based on rumours: the shopkeepers believed, erroneously, that there were scenes which defamed the community, in both the book and film, such as one in which a leech would be shown falling into a pot at a restaurant.

"Probably at the root of it was the film being about a woman’s journey for independence, if you cut through all the periphery," Gavron adds. "But they certainly didn’t represent the local majority who were really angry with the press for picking up and writing about this minority.

The spat attracted the attention of two literary heavyweights. Germaine Greer backed the Brick Lane activists. Then her former Cambridge University peer, Salman Rushdie, wrote to The Guardian newspaper denouncing Greer’s support as "philistine, sanctimonious and disgraceful, but … not unexpected". The hullabaloo surrounding the low-budget film resulted in its selection as the Royal Film Performance for the year being rescinded.

"It was chosen the year after Casino Royale to be screened for Prince Charles and the Queen and we thought fantastic, what an exciting choice for a multicultural Britain, but they got a whiff of the potential protest around the project," Gavron says. "It was disappointing, but fine in a way because we had these debates about the film in the press."

Of course, community cynicism towards an interloper might have been expected. And, Gavron says with a laugh, with a name like hers, "I’m certainly not Bangladeshi".

"I was very conscious of the fact I was a complete outsider but I grew up in London, I’m a mother, and I grew up around ethnic communities, so I was familiar with people who’d grown up as children of immigrants," she says. "But I didn’t know anything about that particular community beyond going out to Brick Lane.

"One thing I feel as a director, though, is that you have to be able to venture into worlds that aren’t your own, otherwise you’re extremely limited. I mean actors play murderers but don’t murder."

Nevertheless, Gavron knew it was important she work alongside people from the community to ensure they came on board as cast and crew. She even used a Bangladeshi filmmaker from East London as her "creative director" in the same way British director Lindsay Anderson, who made If… and This Sporting Life, once worked.

"I saw my job as pulling out the story and the particular, the details, were what was going to make the film live, so the cast and crew from that community did that job."

Link posted by Noman Shamim | Original source The Australian

Place your ads here!

No comments

Write a comment
No Comments Yet! You can be first to comment this post!

Write a Comment