Some books were never meant to be movies. They’re two vastly different and distinct art forms, each with different needs and modes of expression. Sometimes translating from page to screen can work wonders, but normally when the filmmakers involved have a different spin on the material and a way of translating it to the new medium (the obvious example being Francis Ford Coppola’s grandiose re-imagining of the pulp in The Godfather). More often than not, adaptations of famous novels play like staged readings. Filmmakers that are too much in love with the source material struggle to capture as much as they can. The results often feel stale and truncated, featuring a narrative structure that simply doesn’t work when condensed into movie time. Such is the case of Midnight’s Children, a book that director Deepa Mehta loved so much that she hired the original novelist Salmon Rushdie to write the script himself. The result feels like an accomplished pictorial rendering of a beloved text (with Rushdie even providing narration that allows them to cling to his prose), but not really a film. It looks gorgeous and was clearly made with passion. The trouble is that very little was done to adapt the material and what worked as a novel lacks impact on the big screen.
The plot follows two children, each born at midnight on the night that India received independence from England (well, to be fair there is a thirty minute prologue before that, but it should have been cut and is here). A nurse filled with national pride and a drive for activism switches the two children so that the boy born to a wealthy family lives with a beggar, while that child of impoverishment is sent off for a wealthy upbringing. Years pass and as children they are connected again through a psychic link that allows the wealthy Saleem to connect to all the children born at midnight including the now impoverished Shiva. The children connect this way many times throughout their lives, with Shiva wanting them all to use their collective powers for destruction, while Saleem insists they be used for good (and since he controls the meetings through his nose, it’s his call to make). Time passes and once grown, Saleem is forced into surgery that removes his powers and the midnight children are no more. However, war comes to the country with Shiva leading the charge and Saleem a hapless victim. It’s a tale that spans decades, carefully weaving the fictional characters in and out of the events of India’s early days of independence for a mix of allegory and adventure.
As a piece of writing, the material is certainly strong and sound (let’s face it, the thing wouldn’t remain respected decades after publication if that weren’t the case). The story simply never conforms to cinematic conventions and basics. It’s a fairly harsh nip/tuck editing job with some huge sections of the narrative played out at times excruciatingly long (like say the prologue), while other sections completely disappear (like say the personal journey of almost every character but Saleem). As a result, the narrative is both jumpy and sluggish. The story can be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the text, making it almost impossible to be invested in the secondary characters of the large ensemble cast as required. For those who loved the book, it might be exciting to see some of their favorite moments come to life, but new audiences will be left feeling cold. The adaptation is simply too faithful (no one should say “abracadabra” earnestly on screen anymore, no matter how famous the source), with Rushdie floral narration coming in far too often to fill in gaps and tell the story rather than show it.
Now despite that significant flaw of adaptation, there is still plenty to at least admire about the film. The scope of the work is incredibly ambitious and despite having never worked on this scale before, Mehta marshaled her troops admirably. The design is gorgeous with sumptuous costumes and sets filling every scene and grand wide screen compositions cramming in every possible detail. The cast also slot into their roles ideally and the director guides them to pleasing performances, even the characters that get only a fraction of the screen time they could due to truncating. On a technical and surface level Mehta did her job well, creating the lush imagery and large-scale spectacle required for the story. The images she puts on screen will not disappoint the many readers who imagined them for decades. Unfortunately that technical prowess only serves to emphasize the fundamental failings of the adaptation she helped Rushdie create. It’s a film ultimately made by people too close to the source material to change and transform it to suit the needs of a feature length film. They seem to have forgotten what’s required to connect people with this material for the first time. Maybe they should have stretched it out to a mini-series or maybe Midnight’s Children simply never could have worked in any medium other than literature. Either way, this film is not an equal to the book. It will be of interest only to those who love the novel, simply so they can see a highlight reel of memorable images from the text. However, for those completely unfamiliar with the story, this just sadly isn’t a satisfying stand-alone entry point. Something fundamental was lost in translation and this time Bill Murray has nothing to do with it.