Binge-watchers filling up empty days may ask: Why read a book when there’s the movie? Apart from putting the cart before the horse, it’s a lazy question.
Column in Business Standard, April 21, 2020
Days before the lockdown and disruption of book supplies I was fortunate to have a couple of excellent deliveries: The third of Hilary Mantel’s hugely successful award-winning trilogy The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate; Rs 799) which is a wrist-wrenching 830-page tome; and Alexander Norman’s splendid new biography The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life (HarperCollins; Rs 799).
From different epochs both are accounts of two larger-than-life leaders navigating the treacherous terrain of religion and politics. Yet what could Henry VIII and His Holiness possibly have in common — the one a willful, machinating, cruel monarch severing ties with the Church of Rome to anoint himself spiritual head, and the other, a religious leader transcending his exile to become an iconic beacon of wisdom and compassion in our time?
The earlier parts of Ms Mantel’s opus Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies derive their resonance and luminosity from her brilliant device of retelling the well-trodden 16th century tale from the viewpoint of a blacksmith’s son, Thomas Cromwell, who rose to become the King’s conscience-keeper and power behind the throne; and her compelling use of modern English to fictionalise medieval history.
To put the interminable hours of incarceration to enjoyable use I have been reading (or re-reading) favoured books made into movies easily available on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Thus, Ms Mantel’s books can profitably be combined with Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).
Ms Mantel’s book begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn; Mr Kapur’s sumptuously costumed saga charts the reign of Boleyn and Henry VIII’s daughter, an era combining beauty with bloodthirstiness, thrillingly essayed by Cate Blanchett as the Virgin Queen.
In 2016, the journalist John Preston reprised the gay sex-and-politics story of disgraced 1960s Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, brought to trial for the attempted murder of his blackmailing lover, a model named Norman Scott.
A Very English Scandal was a tribute to Mr Preston’s forensic skills as much to his lip-smacking gallows humour. Now see the serial on Amazon Prime, and be prepared for another surprise: What a very good actor that all-time chocolate box beauty Hugh Grant has become!
I have a conflicted weakness for period pieces on the one hand (Thackeray, Austen, Henry James) and gory crime on the other (Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Patricia Highsmith). From the first genre I picked two novels, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, both set in sequestered spaces and exploring the interior landscapes of thwarted emotions.
The lavishness of Ms Wharton’s portrayal of New York’s conformist Gilded Age and Mr Ishiguro’s English aristocratic elite amplify the unvoiced regrets of its protagonists. They are masterpieces of the fictional art of “show, don’t tell”. The reader must flip back the pages to perceive what is implied between the lines. How, then, to bring these alive on film? Martin Scorsese’s version of Wharton and James Ivory’s of Ishiguro (both circa 1993) are burnished by commanding performances by Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day-Lewis, Emma Thompson and Michelle Pfeiffer.
To escape the stifling oppression of drawing room dramas, pick up the memoirs of Danish writer Isak Dinesen as a study in filtering events of long ago, from another time and place.
Sydney Pollack conflated her books into a panoramically shot romantic epic, Out of Africa (1985) accompanied by a memorable musical score though not without irretrievably losing the crystalline quality of Ms Dinesen’s prose.
Like some indefinable creed with innumerable sects crime thrillers come in many genres from trashy serials to lofty psychological puzzles. The excitement lies in following singular sociopaths or murderous mobs into the dark subterranean recesses of the human mind. Martin Scorsese and David Fincher are masters, with inventive adaptations of well-known books, most recently The Irishman; Scorsese has often commandeered novelists such as Nicholas Pileggi, for example, in Goodfellas (1990), and transformed actors like Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio into cult figures in the art of inflicting violent death by a thousand cuts. Not for the faint-hearted, the streaming networks are bristling with spilt blood and hacked limbs.
Binge-watchers filling up empty days may ask: Why read a book when there’s the movie? Apart from putting the cart before the horse, it’s a lazy question. Without the stories there would be few (good) movies. Books remain the richest, paramount resource for films. Cinema is a joyful aide-memoire to the pleasures of the library.