Olive Kitteridge, an adaptation by director Lisa Cholodenko of the eponymous novel by Elizabeth Strout, is a gentle, profound mini-series about a dysfunctional family set in a beautiful, idyllic seaside town in Maine. Frances McDormand plays Olive, a stern school teacher married to cheerful pharmacist Henry ( Richard Jenkins) and the pair are like two peas wrongly squashed into a pod. The dinner table conversations at the Kitteridge residence are clipped, while Henry tries to keep it light for his teen son; Olive doesn’t hesitate to speak about depression that runs rampant in the family and how her father shot himself in the head. There are deaths, tulips, boats, sunsets, suicides and Henry and Olive in the midst of it all growing old together.
The show begins with Olive getting ready to kill herself, a deviation from the book’s opening and ends with her looking out at the ocean and seagulls, ‘It baffles me, this world. I don’t want to leave it yet,” she says, which are also her last words in the book. The show is exquisite, and McDormand has swallowed the character of Olive whole; it’s impossible to find the real Olive on paper again.
Going beyond the pages
This gets one wondering about screen adaptations that have surpassed their book sources, and how rarely that magic happens. In our favourite books, the author has all the words in the world to tell us a story. Our imaginations drive the visuals, their words mesh with our minds to create symbiotic universes. With screen adaptations, however, the interpretation becomes the auteur’s; the story is told in their visual and cinematic style, and they have limited time to tell it. Many a time, that’s why when the lights come on, “the book is better than the movie,” is a common critique. Is this because of a sense of proprietorship and resentment when a favourite story is tweaked and beginnings or endings changed? Is it like taking a core memory and trying to replace it, like meeting your imaginary friend and not liking them?
It’s a daunting walk on fire for directors to try to adapt a popular book, yet from the inception of cinema, novels have been a source of inspiration and fodder for movies. Charles Dickens, who died 25 years before motion pictures came into existence, is credited with inventing the parallel montage (intercutting between two stories) in his writing, and he is also said to have inspired the track shoot and zoom technique through his way of storytelling.
Then there’s Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Stephen King, and John Grisham whose books have been repeatedly adapted; the list of authors and adaptations in the history of cinema is long and contentious.
Closer home, there are a few Indian-authored books that would make terrific films. Vikas Swarup’s Q & A which a few years later became Slumdog Millionaire, Serious Men by Manu Joseph which became a film of the same name on Netflix, The Story of My Assassins by Tarun Tejpal which the show on Prime Video Paatal Lok is loosely based upon, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake to mention a few.
The beauty of adaptation
The Namesake remains an all-time favourite adaptation; Mira Nair elevated Lahiri’s story of immigration, exile and generational discord with her impeccable casting, nuanced performances, minimal dialogues, and a visual style which takes your breath away. The intercut between Queensboro Bridge and Howrah Bridge, showing the two worlds of Ashima played by Tabu; the transition from New York through a train window to lush paddy fields in West Bengal through the bars of another train’s window; the floating orange garland in the Ganges after her husband’s ashes are immersed to the lone orange tree outside their home in the suburbs of NY where she is back now without him… all these images stay stronger than words.
The film is filled with effective cinematic storytelling and simple juxtaposition of shots which elicit emotions without music or dialogue. The shot of Ashima trying Ashoke’s (played by Irrfan Khan) shoes before their first meeting is filled with cadence. It’s easy for a film to dumb down a metaphor and make it too concrete, cheapen its essence with dialogue or drama, but it is finesse in the technique that makes the medium rise above the pages of a book and its words to tell a story visually without the crutches of dialogue-y exposition. Nair excels at this.
With the current generation watching more than reading, hope a reverse exodus happens where they seek out the book that inspired their favourite film.
The writer is a cinematographer who works in the Indian film industry