book-to-movie

The art of translation

Translations have the ability to ruin or enrich a piece of literature. In this review, I look at two books that were translated to English. Chemmeen, written in Malayalam by T. S. Pillai, was translated by Anita Nair, and One Part Woman, written in Tamil by Perumal Murugan, was translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.

The problems of translation are many, and I don’t pretend to know all of them. But, even to a novice, many of those problems become evident when it’s a translation of a nuanced story. Likewise, the beauty of a good translation is evident when a reader is moved by the literature, an artwork by itself, despite the translation. To be able to accomplish the latter requires responsible and dedicated translation, which, I’m afraid, is rare to find.

One Part Woman was written in Tamil under the title Maathorubagan. The book kicked up a storm when it was published. A section of the society demanded that it be banned. But fortunately, in an unfortunately flawed judgment, the courts allowed the book to be published.

The book, One Part Woman, is about a couple, Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love with each other. The tenderness in their relationship is touchingly written; allowing me to forget that this is a translation! Their attempts at conceiving a child go in vain, and they are hounded by the social sanction of being childless. But then there comes relief – a chariot festival, where consensual sex between any man and woman, married or unmarried, is allowed; all for the benefit of the barren women. According to this tradition, the acts committed on the occasion of the festival are sacred and fully sanctioned by God. But will it push Kali and Ponna’s relationship too far if she participates in it?

The tale is harrowing because of how human it is. It examines, with nuance and lyricism, the ways in which society manipulates our choices, emotions, relationships. By the end of the thin book, I was exhausted and moved. The story is exceptional, goosebumps-worthy. It made me wonder how exquisite the Tamil version would be. But thankfully, the translation is excellent in that simple English is used to tell the tale without any jarring pitstops.

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The Tamil book, Maathorubagan

And then there is Chemmeen, an epic story, and a regrettable translation. Chemmeen is more famous as one of the best Malayalam movies, than it is as a Malayalam book. The story is gold! However, the intricately woven themes and the strong characters have to be rescued by the reader against the tide of the grammatical errors that steal the treasure – the story. The flat tone used, with a mechanical translation, was highly off putting.

“It was bone-chillingly damp. Then one morning the sun rose in a clear sky. The boats were launched. There was a good catch. The boats came back to shore and brisk trade happened.”

“A few days later a huge quarrel erupted on the shore. All the fisherwomen who sold their fish in the east ganged up against Karuthamma and abused her.”

Lines that may have sounded poetic in Malayalam lay diminished in this translation.

Apart from my grievance about the translation, the story is beautiful. It’s a classic. It examines the lives of a community of fisherfolk in Kerala, their interpersonal relationships based on status, class and religion. It is essentially a love story, though. All the characters are built expertly, except Pareekutty, who remains slightly mysterious and romantic till the end. The protagonists of the love story, Karuthamma, Pareekutty and Palani, are honorable, loving, flawed, passionate people. Even though Karuthamma loves Pareekutty, she marries Palani. She does so because, among other myriad reasons, Pareekutty is not from her religion, because her father asks her to do so, because that’s her duty to the community, as a fisherwoman. As you can see, from this very short snippet of the story, multiple themes are intertwined in the story. And the story itself has many twists and turns. What happens to Palani, Karuthamma and Pareekutty? Do Palani and Karuthamma live as a happily married couple? Or do Karuthamma and Pareekutty get together? The richness of the story merits every high praise. But, as for the translation, the lesser said the better.

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A still from the 1965 Malayalam movie, Chemmeen


Chemmeen and One Part Woman share some similar themes, but Chemmeen, I’d say, is more layered and complex, and is a better drama; a classic! One Part Woman, though, has won me over with its simple, yet nuanced, story.

TS Pillai’s Chemmeen deserves a 4.5/5 for being such an epic story, but I’d rate it at 3/5 due to (despite) the disappointing translation by Anita Nair. Don’t read it if you cannot stand a beautiful story being lost due to the ineptitude of the literature.

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman fully deserves a 4/5, for its story and the translation that does it justice. Read it if you enjoy heartwarming lyrical love stories.

Greek mythology for the mortals

This is a review of the Percy Jackson books, by Rick Riordan.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a set of 5 fantastic books based on Greek Mythology, which one will learn is no myth, but reality set in The USA today. The Greek mythology is fun. Obviously. After all, many human years ago it was part of a religion which, anthropologists like Malinowski believed, held societies together. Despite being as larger than life, the inspiration that the books draw from Greek Mythology is just right.

Percy Jackson is a dyslexic 12 year old when we meet him. He cannot seem to keep a seat in a school for longer than a year, because he always causes some inexplicable problems that get him expelled. He and his lone friend, Grover, join the school trip in which Percy is attacked by the former math teacher, Mrs Dodds, current monstrous bird-like thing that tries to kill Percy. With the help of his Latin teacher, Chiron, who lends him a ballpoint-pen-turned-sword at the right moment, Percy valorously, and to his own surprise, defeats the monster. However, after he does, noone around him seems to remember a Mrs Dodd, never mind the attack that Percy survived. We soon learn that the memories of the mortals (humans) was altered by the Mist (a spell of sorts that alters memories and imagery). As one can guess, Grover and Chiron, are not human – and were, in fact, protecting Percy from the monsters. After this incident and a bunch near-fatal meetings with more monsters, he, his mother and Grover drive to the Half-blood Hill, where other children like Percy live.

At camp, Percy learns that he is the son of Poseidon, the god of seas; one of the Big Three (the other two being Zeus and Hades), and a “mistake” in the sense that despite the gods’ oaths not to sire children with humans, Poseidon did (although Zeus did it first, but his child almost, sort of, did not really survive). Our protagonist is hence no more a dyslexic and lost little lad, but one of the most powerful 12 year olds alive.

The books of the pentalogy are strung together by the doings of the gods, some prophecies and the heroism of Percy and co. They track Percy’s adventures as he first tries to stop a war from occurring, then tries to restore the health of the camp which loses its protective properties due to sabotage of its border forces. In the third book, Percy and his friends try to safeguard other half-bloods, and in the bargain, he loses and gains friends. In the fourth part, Percy and friends try to safeguard the camp, which they believe is compromised due to a labyrinth underneath. The last part is the culmination of the series, where the games played by Kronos (the Titan lord – very important and dangerous) is drawn to the close as he attempts to destroy Olympus (which is situated in New York, by the way), the house of the gods.

The series is short and fast paced. It has no unnecessary descriptions of scenery, for instance. It throws up some perfunctory surprises and twists to keep it going; some enrich the reading, some turn things upside down, and some are very predictable. You’d enjoy the series like I did, if you like the idea of gods roaming in running clothes, driving a Maserati, a Harley Davidson, wearing beach wear and the like. There’s almost never a dull moment. The funniest bit for me was when Percy and his friend (and daughter of Athena), Annabeth, try to enter the Underworld, Hades’s abode. Watch out for the three-headed dog, Cerebus.

What I felt was a bummer was the repetitive nature of the adventures, and the lack of maturity of the characters despite the years. Percy is perceptually confused and surprised at his own abilities. I had to keep reminding myself that he’s only a little boy (um, who saves the world!). Also, he’s too noble. Bah. That apart, as a Potterhead, I came across somethings that sounded too familiar. In Percy Jackson, as in Harry Potter, there’s a prophesy which might fit the protagonist (including the apparent confusion about the subject of the prophesy – Harry or Neville; Percy or ). The villain of the story is almost dead, but not quite, and is trying to rise once again. This guy first tries to steal an instrument that will hasten his resurrection (philosopher’s stone, the golden fleece) before he goes full mental and uses the services of his cowardly loyal followers. In one of the books, there’s a maze with monsters littered all over it (remind you of the third task in the triwizard tournament?).

While the books were good company, their brilliance dulled towards the end (the final book tries too hard to be funny, and is condensible to half its length). But to be fair, the monsters and other creatures throughout the series are entertaining and slightly adorable scary. For instance, there’s a cow-like sea creature which says ‘Moo’.

For making a comedy out of those witless gods, here’s to you, Rick Riordan!

3/5

The Rosy Project

This is a review of The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.

It famously featured on Bill Gate’s recommendations. Contrary to what Bill Gates says, this book did not keep me up for hours into the night to read it.

Firstly, The Rosie Project is a short novel. It’s written in simple language, sans much depth (say, like Dorian Gray). Secondly, it’s predictable, so I sort of guessed how it would end by the time I had read one fourth of the book. Lastly, The Rosie Project reminded me of TV characters, something that was highly off-putting. So I finished reading it in a total of four hours, was not very curious, was not enraptured, and was slightly irritated.

That said, the book is hilarious if you can get past the (odd) ways of the protagonist, Don. Plus, it’s a pleasant chick-flick-esque story. It’s a happy and rosy book; a “happily ever after” kind of storybook. As an added bonus, it also makes you chuckle every five pages or so.

Don is an extremely smart person who teaches genetics in a famous university in America. He is also fit, has a favourite chair in his house, has a fixed meal system, times his appointments to the minute etc (remind you of anyone?). He is on a quest to find a wife. He calls this his “Wife Project”. While he’s at it, he meets a woman, Rosie, who is unconventionally awesome, beautiful, etc. She tells him that she’s looking for her biological father. So Don tries to help her in what he calls “the Father Project”. In the process he does a lot of entertaining off-beat stuff. In the meantime, he also meets a super-hot super-nerdy woman, as she ‘applies’ to his “Wife Project”. But he eventually figures out that he loves Rosie. Ergo, The Rosie Project, to win Rosie over.

It’s a 2/5 from me. The movie adaptation (duh!) starring Ryan Reynolds might fare better. Might.

Don’t we all want happy endings?

Nobody reads this blog. Sigh. This is what you get when two electrical engineers decide to “pollute the internet” (quote credits to SD) with their unqualified thoughts on Literature.

This is my review of The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. After the dramatic fantasy of The Night Circus, the ordinariness of this book was a welcome change. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely above average. It’s just that the setting- middle class, football-obsessed American suburbia- is very ‘non-fantasy’.

Pat Peoples has just moved into his parents’ basement. Don’t judge, it’s a step up from where he was before- a psychiatric hospital. He has a simple plan: 1. Get fit. 2. Win back his ex-wife. 3. Live happily ever after.

But it’s not that easy. He became mentally unstable after he split up with his wife, who now has a restraining order against him. And he has a long way to go in terms of psychological recovery as well. He has the love of his mother, the occasional, grudging support of his father, a badass Indian therapist,  well-meaning friends and a brother who go out of their way to make him feel at home. But it takes a fellow ‘loony’, his sister-in-law’s sister Tiffany, to help him accept reality again. By means of a modern dance contest.

If that sounds like a movie plot to you, then you’re absolutely right. But despite sounding like the script to Step Up x++, it’s surprisingly heartwarming. Sort of like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for adults. Also a very light read, recommended for flights/boring classes etc.

3.5/5

Yes, I like adaptations

And now for something completely different… Poetry adapted into movies. “How,” you ask, “does a poem have anywhere close to enough content for a movie?” Well, you haven’t been reading the right poetry. We’re talking narrative and imagery, not daffodils and brooks.

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is just bleak enough to be romantic without the sweet aftertaste. A Yale student Yulin Kuang has adapted it to a short YouTube clip. I like the poem, most of it, but the video seemed lackluster and too literal. But it’s worth a shot- being an English-as-a-second-language learner in school meant that I never really was exposed to any poetry more recent than the nineteenth century. It was nice to find that yes, there is poetry that is edgy and dark.

Aaaand now for our feature presentation. The Song of Lunch, featuring Alan Rickman. This is no joke. The talented Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson play middle aged ex-lovers in this BBC short based on a poem of the same name. I hadn’t heard of the poem before, but had a sneaking suspicion than Alan Rickman (may he rest in peace) would make a narrator to rival Morgan Freeman. In the wave of RIP Snape mania, I managed to find an undoubtedly illegal print on YouTube, and watched it immediately (thus procrastinating my homework for 50 minutes- instant gratification is my vice).

The first segment is hilarious- Rickman sneaks out of his office at lunchtime, with no intention of returning for several hours. Any cubicle-dweller will relate to the rush of adrenaline that comes when you take the first couple of steps out of the building without being spotted.

The story gets serious afterwards, though. Rickman has a date with an old flame, who ran away with a more successful man. He is clearly not over her, and tries to drown the initial nostalgia and disappointment in several glasses of red wine. Which does not end well.

Once again, I was surprised that poetry could be so, well, contemporary. This short reminded me of cynical indie movies with unpopular-geek protagonists, despite being a regretful poem about unrequited love. Rickman’s badass-ery might have had something to do with it.

Watch this. 4.5/5

The Perfect Murder

This is my review of Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.

I really liked The Talented Mr Ripley, and had my eye out for another novel by Patricia Highsmith. Managed to acquire this book legally online and devoured it in a sitting. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a semi-abridged textbook edition of the story. As they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

This book has a very interesting plot- two men meet on a train and trade murders. Charley Bruno is a playboy who has had a disagreement with his father, and Guy Haines’ ex-wife is trying to sabotage his career as an architect. There is no motive, no acquaintance even, between the murderer and victim. And so they will escape without any trouble, or so they hope.

This is more like a psychological thriller than a murder mystery. While the psychopathic Charley murders Guy’s wife promptly without any qualms, Guy finds himself forced into a corner with no alternative (and a creepy stalker).

While the story itself is interesting, the execution and pace of the novel is not great, possibly because of the editing/ censorship of the version I read. I’d recommend the movie instead, you can’t go wrong with Hitchcock. 3/5.

Here’s one for Halloween

This is my review of Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin.

From what I’ve heard, the movie based on this book is something of a cult classic. Honestly, I just picked this one up because I wanted something quick-I’m way behind on my Goodreads book goal for the year. It was surprisingly good; I expected something much more ‘pulp fiction’.

Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are a young newly-married couple looking for a house in NYC. They fall in love with a four bedroom apartment and immediately move in, despite its history of bad luck and strange occurrences. Rosemary wants to have children, but Guy is an upcoming actor and wants to wait until he makes it big on stage.

They befriend an elderly couple who live in the next apartment. Guy, in particular, becomes very close to them and their circle of strange, but well-meaning, friends. He agrees that it is time for them to have a child, and Rosemary quickly becomes pregnant. Soon after, he gets his big break when another actor mysteriously goes blind and he’s called in as a replacement.

Rosemary is severely ill for the first few months of her pregnancy. She loses weight and craves raw meat. She grows increasingly suspicious of her kindly neighbours, but is unable to pinpoint any malicious intent. She eventually works out the plot, but cannot escape in time.

What I liked- The story is refreshingly unique and subtle. Makes for a quick read. Was successful in creeping me out- what more could I ask from a novel of this genre?

What I didn’t like- The overly simplistic plot would be more appropriate for a short story. As it is, most of the plot focuses on ‘setting the scene’ for the final revelation. It probably makes for a brilliant movie, though.

4/5. Recommended for rainy nights when you want to spook yourself out.

Confession: I’m not as free as I once was, so I’ve resorted to queuing posts weeks/months in advance. Shouldn’t make too much of a difference, I hope.