Thursday, September 3, 2009

In Brief: The Movie Was Better

"I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show."

So begins Q And A, the 2005 novel by Vikas Swarup that, while I suppose successful in its own right, will forever be overshadowed by the 2008 movie ostensibly based on it: Slumdog Millionaire. My paperback copy was even titled Slumdog Millionaire: Originally Published As Q And A.

I think everyone knows the movie. With the possible - but only possible - exception of John Carpenter, the image of Jamal Malik (played by Dev Patel) sitting on the set of Millionaire is certainly more famous than that of anyone who has actually appeared on Millionaire, and I wouldn't be surprised if it went down in cinematic history. The book, on the other hand, didn't have anyone named Jamal in it. Its central character and narrator had the unlikely name of Ram Mohammad Thomas (I won't repeat the book's explanation for why he's called that, but do beware of potential spoilers in this review). He is a contestant on a fictional game show actually described as a potential competitor to Millionaire: Who Will Win A Billion? The grand prize, in case you didn't guess, is 1,000,000,000 rupees, and the contestant has the assistance of two lifeboats: Friendly Tip (Phone A Friend) and Half And Half (50\50).

When the novel opens, Ram has already taped his 1,000,000,000 rupee win, but it hasn't aired yet. This is possibly the only thing the book did better than the movie. In the movie, the show was broadcast live, leading to a predictable race through the streets of Mumbai to get to the studio - well, real game shows are taped months in advance of their airdate. Anyway, Ram has taped his appearance, been declared a cheater by the producers, and sent to a jail cell. A lawyer offers to help defend him, and most of the book consists of what he tells her as he explains, question by question, how he knew the answers.

That doesn't sound that different from the movie, right? Well, it was. The movie was primarily focused on the love story between Jamal and Latika, as well as the relationship between Jamal and his brother Salim. Well...Ram is an only child. The closest character to the movie's Salim is also named Salim, but he is merely a friend of Ram's who (SPOILER!) doesn't go anywhere near becoming a gangster, let alone dying just as Ram wins an enormous game show jackpot. The closest character to Latika is a young prostitute named Nita, with whom Ram instantly falls in love. In the end, he gets the girl after using his game show money to buy her freedom from her pimp...except that Nita isn't even introduced until the last chapter. Since we've only known her for a short time, how are we supposed to care if Ram gets the girl?

The book is divided into one chapter for each question, but in all honesty, while the movie seamlessly integrated the game show plot with Jamal's past, the different chapters of the book feel more like individual short stories, with the cut to the game show at the end of each chapter existing only as a not particularly good framing device. As if that wasn't enough, Ram's explanations of each question come from different points in his life, and they aren't in order. So in one story - excuse me, chapter - Ram's a fourteen year old working for an ageing Bollywood star; the next, he's a nine year old in a corrupt juvenile home, something that just confused me to no end.

Of course this is supposed to be a novel and not a set of loosely connected stories, and the epilogue makes that clear by tying things up...a little too neatly. All the bad guys, from the juvenile home owner to the sadistic game show host, have died or been brought to justice one way or another; all the "good" guys (the only ones we care about are Ram and Salim) get to achieve their dreams and live happily ever after. Even the lawyer who Ram has supposedly been telling this whole thing to reveals herself to be someone he knew years ago. So in brief: you don't really care about the characters, the different stories aren't integrated together well, and it all comes to way too happy an ending. Maybe we should be happy the movie didn't stay faithful to the book.

The BBC Radio show, however, did stay faithful to the book, and I'll be listening to it next.

I'll have my review as soon as I'm finished.


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