Salman Rushdie on turning his novel ‘Midnight’s Children’ into a film

Salman Rushdie (next to director Deepa Mehta) wrote the screenplay for the film of his novel "Midnight's Children" Credit: tk
Salman Rushdie, with director Deepa Mehta, wrote the screenplay for the film of his novel “Midnight’s Children.”
Credit: Paladin Films/108 Media

Salman Rushdie is a big movie fan. In interviews he is candid about his love of classic Hollywood, his passion for “The Wizard of Oz” and his youth, in the ‘60s, when he religiously attended first-run screenings of the greats by Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais. So it’s a touch odd that he’s never written a movie, and that none of his novels have been made into movies. All of that will change with the new “Midnight’s Children,” adapted by Rushdie from his 1981 breakthrough novel, and helmed by the Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta (“Fire,” “Water”).

Did Deepa Mehta have to do much arm-twisting to get you to write the screenplay?
She did a little. Initially, I didn’t want to do it, because I just felt I wrote it already. But she was very insistent.

Did part of you worry that someone else might screw up the adaptation?
What I thought was this was the first time anyone has made a film of a book of mine. And I thought it would be awful to step away from it and then go to the opening night and realize you don’t like it. I thought that would be my fault for not having been involved.

What were some of the difficulties of screenwriting?
One of the things you learn when you write for the screen, much more than when you write a novel, is that you have to be much more conscious of audience response. If there’s any moment in a film when the audience is suddenly puzzled or confused, then you’ve lost them. It might take you 10 minutes to get them back, or you may never get them back. That sense of how do you hold the audience becomes something you think about all the time. How do you keep that line clear and uncluttered so the audience is just drawn through in what feels like a natural way. What I said to Deepa was, “Let’s not think of this as an adaptation, but as a relative. Like a first cousin of the book, like there’s a close resemblance but they’re not the same thing.”

What was it like reworking something you wrote 30-plus years ago?
It was strange, I have to say. Because it’s very much a young man’s book. When I finished writing “Midnight’s Children,” I was 32. When it was published I was 33. Now I’m pushing 66. So it’s half my life ago. Your own writing evolves, things that you’re interested in as a writer then you’re less interested in now. Then there are moments when I admired what that young writer had done, and other moments when I thought, “I wouldn’t do it like that now.”

I do feel that if this had been a novel I wrote more recently, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. It would have been idiotic to get me to do it. You should get someone who’s detached and objective to look at it in the way that you need to look at a book to adapt it. And because I’m the author of the original book, I can be more ruthless. I can be less crippled by respect for the text. I can say, “Let’s just throw all this out,” or, “Let’s do this differently.” I would suggest things that Deepa wouldn’t dare suggest, because it’s “Midnight’s Children.” With others, there’s this problem of excessive genuflection in front of the novel. Whereas I don’t give a damn.

You’ve written, or least started, screenplays before. One screenplay became your novel ‘Shame.’
It happened twice. It happened once with “Shame,” and once with a television idea that I wrote a draft script for that wound up becoming an episode in “The Satanic Verses.” I wrote a screenplay that was a project at one point for the film director Raul Ruiz, who wanted to make a film of “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” He got somebody else to write a draft screenplay, which frankly I thought was appalling. It was just wrong, a hundred ways wrong. Then I offered to write a screenplay, but he got up on his high horse — he didn’t like that. And the project wound up falling apart because we couldn’t agree on how to proceed.

How did you envision ‘Shame’ as a film when it was still in screenplay form?
I can’t even really remember. But when the book did come out, the person who was briefly very interested in making a film of it was Costa-Gavras. Then we couldn’t find the money. It’s that sort of extraordinarily intense political fantasy that Costa-Gavras’ films, at their best, have been, like “Z.”

You’re a big movie fan, too. You’ve written about ‘The Wizard of Oz’ many times, including as a monograph for the British Film Institute.
What happened was [the BFI] sent me the usual list of the greatest films ever made. And I was looking down at it and thinking, “What do I have to say about ‘Citizen Kane’ that hasn’t been said 4,000 times? What do I have to say about ‘Stagecoach?’ Nothing.” And then “The Wizard of Oz” popped out at me, and I remembered seeing it as a child in Bombay and being very struck by it. And so I thought I had an angle on this film that wouldn’t be the obvious angle. I’ve always been as influenced by movies as by books. One of the great influences on me has been the cinema of Luis Bunuel — that kind of dark surrealism, which can be comic but can also be extremely nasty. I thought of him quite a bit when I was writing “Shame.”

Do you have the same passion for today’s movies as those of the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Yes, but I just think those days are gone. Hollywood’s back in charge. And I just think it’s not quite the same anymore. I don’t have that thrill very often. I do sometimes. When we took this film to Telluride — when you’ve got your own movie at a festival, you don’t get to see too many other movies. The only ones I got to see were “Argo” and “Amour.” “Argo” — it’s good. It’s a good thriller. Is it that good? It’s not a great thriller, but I enjoyed watching it. It’s good. But “Amour,” I was really blown away by, in this way when you’re sitting in the cinema and someone does something that’s just shockingly good. If I had to say what film last year I really thought was a great film, I’d say “Amour.” If you asked me which film I enjoyed most, it would be “Django Unchained.”

Did you see the ‘Oz’ prequel that just came out?
Oh, yeah, I did go see it. I thought, “Yeah, OK.”


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