Friday, October 09, 2009

Vikas Swarup: Slumdog Millionaire (a.k.a. Q&A); Lemony Snicket: Slutet (The End)

I saw the film Slumdog Millionaire this summer (I think it was), and although it wasn't perhaps the best film I've ever seen I did like it. The book by comparison is actually not as good - and most importantly, the book differs so much in storyline from the film that it was, in my opinion, a poor decision to change the original title Q&A into the film title of Slumdog Millionaire. It gives you false expectations. However, the fundamental idea is, obviously, the same, since that is the book's originality and most appealing feature, and the one I can imagine the film-makers warming to: a young man, an orphan, who has survived by his wits and a fair bit of luck, comes on a tv quiz show and wins the billion rupee top prize. He is accused of cheating and beaten by the police. In the film, he tells the policeman how come he knew the answers to all the questions on the show; in the book he tells a young woman lawyer, who turns up out of the blue at the police station and claims to be his defence. His story is given in a series of flashbacks of his life, relating episodes where he just happened to learn those facts that just happen to appear as the questions on the show. Street knowledge, not book knowledge, as the author puts it in an interview at the end.

There is a strong message of belief in a destiny in the book, something which feels very Bollywood (and is not as obvious in the film). It is Ram's destiny to meet the woman he falls in love with, and to win the one billion rupees. If it were not his destiny, then why would he only get questions he knew the answers to? He also has a lucky coin that he uses when making decisions, and in the final sentences he throws it away, saying that luck comes from within. Which does sound the opposite of fatalistic really, but his point is that is doesn't matter if the coin comes up heads or tails, all the paths in your life have led you to the decision-making moment, and you know what must be done. And as for "all the paths in your life" as a theme - I feel a certain kinship to Dickens in the way that the story is put together. The woman lawyer is revealed to be someone from Ram's past, who has searched for him all these years to repay her debt, a school teacher whose sick son is saved by Ram's money becomes his lifeboat choice on the quiz show, the quiz show host is also a figure from the past, albeit a villain - out of the population of a billion the same few people seem to be falling over one another's feet all the time, and then the threads are gathered up at the end. It is very fantastical at places, and so I first decided it's unrealistic. But then I started thinking about how life is exactly this unrealistic really, and how odd it is that we have a different demand on realism in fiction - the dialogue for example has to be quite unreal to be deemed real. If you see what I mean. So I don't know. I saw the film as more realistic, to be honest, but that might also be to a large part thanks to fantastic performances from the child actors in it. A decidedly unrealistic side of the film was the way the characters as adults all spoke English - with no reference to how they might have learned it. In the book this is explained, and not considered a minor detail.

I have noticed several times (since we're speaking of destiny and such matters), that two ostensibly very different books may strike you as being very similar, especially if you read them close together so the impressions are fresh in your mind. In this case, I read the last book in the Lemony Snicket saga of the Baudelaire children just before Slumdog Millionaire. I read the first seven or so in one sweep at around this time but then I got a bit bored with the style (plus that the library never had them in) so I stopped reading them. My youngest daughter and her friends however are going through a Lemony Snicket phase, so she has been bringing them home en masse, albeit in the Swedish translation. When I saw the final instalment lying on the shoe bench in the hall (such a logical spot for a library book, don't you agree?) I thought that I'd just have to skim through it, translation or no, because one would have to know the end, right? Okay, and my point then about odd similarities (at last! they cry): Lemony Snicket and Vikas Swarup are similar in their writing styles. It is boxy, stilted, a little formal, repetitive at times. While this works in the part fantasy part pastiche frame that Lemony Snicket uses, it is not as successfull for Swarup. He's just not that great a writer - particularly since there are so so many FANTASTIC Indian writers of fiction. He simply cannot measure up. I skimmed large parts of the book - and not just because I knew the story and it was late and I was tired. It's not very spell-binding. That said, there is room for Swarup too in the pantheon of authors - he can sometimes be better than he is worse, and he is clearly driven by wanting to tell us a story. Which is not a bad thing.

I don't have that much to say about the final Lemony Snicket book. I've missed several books before the last one, so there were some references and characters I was unfamiliar with, but I really don't think that impairs my judgement when I say that the conclusion is a bit of a disappointment. The author fails to follow through on all the terrible hints and promises of horrific history we are fed with during the series. There is a slightly darker note in the book, as if Snicket wouldn't have minded going Gaiman on us and killed everyone off, but then he remembers that this is a children's book and that they deserve a happier ending. This, accordingly, is what we get, and for an adult it isn't completely satisfying. There are too many loose ends left for me to be entirely pleased, and it feels as though he just wanted to finish the damn thing already. I'm sure my daughter liked it just fine though, but I'll have to ask her. Update will be posted here.

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