Uncovering the Book: Adaptations and Literary Afterlives

Mira Nair’s latest Netflix series, A Suitable Boy, an eponymous adaptation of Vikram Seth’s magnum opus, has garnered mixed reviews. Those who have read the 1,500-page novel, seemed disappointed with the shoddily written dialogues, caricaturish treatment of characters, and loose plot-ends hurriedly stitched in the last episode. Contrarily, viewers unfamiliar with Seth’s work, having been lured by spectacular frames, costume designs, and acting performances, were more prone to overlooking some of the poorer editorial decisions.

I, falling somewhere in between, as in, the sort who has shed tears of admiration over Seth’s poetry in one’s embarrassing teenage years but never quite found the patience to pick up his voluminous prose works, lie once again ‘somewhere in between’ with regards to my feelings about the show. Nevertheless, being the only literature student among my peers (who somehow have been nurturing lofty ideas about my reading habits), I was bombarded with a fusillade of, ‘does so-and-so also do so-and-so in the book’ kind of questions, all of which I was expected to answer with certitude.

Eager to preserve their flattering impression of my intellect while not falling prey to imposter syndrome, I begrudgingly placed an order for the book online. Before that, however, I did what every unprepared student is guilty of committing at some point in their academic careers, i.e. resorted to reading a Wikipedia summary as a quick fix. Interestingly, I wasn’t the only one searching for answers on the internet. A Google search about Google searches disclosed that the launch of the show’s trailer and episodes had renewed people’s interest in Seth’s novel (the peaks in the graph roughly correspond to the show’s BBC and Netflix release).

Also read: Sometimes, the Movie is Better Than the Book

The same holds true for Arvind Adiga’s Booker winning novel, The White Tiger, which recently saw the launch of a Priyanka Chopra and Raj Kumar Rao starring trailer of the movie adaptation. If the urgency of human curiosity is anything to go by, statistics prompt me to believe that I am not the only one to have purchased a book after watching the show. Be it to fill up the gaps in its television counterpart’s plotline or to take the plunge into an author’s oeuvre, an engagement with the screen decidedly creates concomitant ripples within reading circles. Kevin McDonald and Daniel Smith-Rowsey theorise this as the ‘Netflix effect’ wherein patterns of content consumption in all spheres are dictated by a singular business model, in this case, that of Netflix.

Likewise, within days of its release, Queen’s Gambit, another trending web series, caused not only chess-board sales to sky-rocket but also the original book, on which the show is based, to be declared a New York Times Bestseller after 37 years of its publication. Yet the Netflix effect is only a strand of a larger cultural phenomenon that has for a long time been influencing consumer behaviour. For a generation that has grown up on a diet of Harry Potter, Marvel, and DC, millennials are not unaccustomed to witnessing their favourite fictional characters animated in flesh and blood on the big screen. But how has the optics of cinema made a palimpsest of our literary heroes? Or has it, alternatively, given them a fresh lease of life?

To deconstruct the dialectics of these artistic mediums, I am tempted to recount self-indulgent experiences of observing fellow shoppers in bookstores. I recall teenagers consciously picking up the edition of The Fault in Our Stars with Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort on the jacket as opposed to the original cover. I have eavesdropped on readers asking at the counter for ‘the book on which Aisha is based’ (Aisha is a 2010 Bollywood movie, starring Sonam Kapoor that is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility). I have also heard salespersons explain how Dune has been out of stock ever since the movie trailer, starring Timothée Chalamet, has been released.

The Fault in Our Stars
John Green
Dutton Books (2012)

Instead of the adaptations depending on the iconography of original literature, these have created capsules of powerful visuals for literature to rely on. For instance, most Nicholas Sparks books in circulation have the posters of the movies as their cover. The most memorable of these is The Notebook, of which Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, frozen together in a moment of intense passion, have become the emblems. Similarly, for much of Gen Z, who may or may not have read the books, Daniel Radcliffe is Harry Potter, Johnny Depp is Willy Wonka, and Leonardo Di Caprio, appearing most frequently in Facebook memes holding up a glass of martini, is Gatsby.

Cinema might have created new ways to keep the characters alive, but the language in which they were constructed and discussed have been altered. In reincarnations of the ‘text’, where does the literature lie? Definitely not in irrelevance since that would not have allowed the adaptation to be made in the first place. Rather in these parallel dimensions of reinvented expression, literature is not transposed or translated, but transcreated. That is to say, new worlds are housing old spirits in new bodies.

This explains why Tabu, a critically acclaimed actress of the Hindi film industry, emphatically called Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool, the Indian adaptation of Macbeth, “a totally original piece of work”. She not only reinterpreted the role of Lady Macbeth in the movie but has also appeared in several adaptations including Fitoor, Haider, and The Namesake. These movies saw a marriage of ideas between two minds, old and new. Old clay moulded in the hands of a new potter, hence the ‘originality’.

Thus, it is unfair to ascribe the onus of legacy on adaptations because it is, at best, a progeny of what still lives. Literature, in and of itself, remains self-renewing, being discovered by new readers of new sensibilities with the passage of time. Other arts flow from it, possibly derive life from it, but eventually embark upon their own journeys of uncharted artistic exploration.

Dibyangee Saha is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in English from Jadavpur University. She published her first poetry anthology in 2018.

Featured image credit: Netflix/Illustration: LiveWire