Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children came out in 1981, and today the epic has a reputation that could be described as Himalayan. I haven’t read it (full disclosure) but I imagine the work would fit nicely next to my mental fondness for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude.
Both books fall into the genre of magic realism, which mixes the fantastic, the supernatural with the ordinariness of everyday life. The effects of such writing, if done well, are as pleasing as a paradox. If done poorly…then, well, I’m not quite sure what it’s like. I haven’t read a book in that style which I didn’t enjoy.
But I can’t say the same about movies adapted from such books. Midnight’s Children, the film that comes out this Friday, falters precisely where it needed to succeed — in its magic-making. The switch from the page to the screen harms its multi-generational, twist-laden story, because (a) the performances are lackluster and (b) every utterance of abracadabra is followed by a lukewarm display of movie magic.
This tepid result could be because Deepa Mehta, the director, didn’t originally want to tackle this beast when she and Rushdie decided to collaborate. Mehta initially wanted to make, reports say, a film out of Shalimar the Clown, but the duo decided on Midnight’s Children instead.
Rushdie, who trimmed his massive novel into a relatively slim screenplay, is responsible for much of what makes the film work. For instance, he’s the perfect narrator. His voice and diction ease you lyrically into scenes as well as the historical context. Considering the movie clocks in at nearly three hours — with twist after twist after twist — Rushdie’s authorial guidance is a big plus. And how often do non-audiobook fiends get to hear a great author tell one of his greatest stories?
The story, in a nutshell, is about a group of children who are born just after midnight on the day of India’s independence and partition (Aug. 15, 1947). Each of these children has a different magic power. One can fly, one can make things invisible, and one (our main man) can bring all of Midnight’s Children together via telepathy. His name is Saleem.
Saleem’s life runs parallel to that of India’s independence. The movie focuses on him, starting with events before Saleem’s birth — showing how his parents met, how he came to be their son (which is a subplot all its own) — and continues through his childhood and into his adult life, where things get real crazy and sad and so on….Pushed by fate into many of India’s early wars and political struggles, he tries to bring together his magical compatriots in an effort to unite the diverse subcontinent as it forges its way into history.
All sorts of trouble and tragedy occurs, but different actors handle it better than others. Let me explain: the child Saleem (Darsheel Safary) is solid. He carries the movie’s magic and the struggles of a difficult childhood well. We feel for him, enjoy watching him, believe his astonishment over his new-found telepathy. The same can’t be said for the adult Saleem (Satya Sorab Bhabha), with whom we spend much more of the movie. I’m not sure what the issue is — Is he introduced too late? Is his acting just off? — but he’s much harder to connect with, to believe. His off-ness combined with the tired finale leave you with a flat taste, like Indian food without any real, sweat-inducing spice.
The best books don’t make the best films. We’ve seen that recently with The Great Gatsby, depending on who you talk to. One wonders if it’s not too bad an idea to leave the great novels to the bookshelves and stick to incarnating comic book heroes.