This week, director Ritesh Batra’s new film, The Sense of an Ending, will make its way to the theatres. The movie is an adaptation of the eponymous 2011 novel by Julian Barnes, which received the Man Booker Prize.
Winning a Man Booker Prize confers instant prestige on a literary work. When any film version arrives, its reputation as a book almost always precedes it. By their very nature, these movies hardly tend to light up ticket sales. Instead, a modest box-office turn accompanied by high critical buzz, or maybe an extended awards run, is seen as sufficient.
Which adaptations of the past managed to capture this elusive mix and which ones fell short of expectations? Here’s looking back at some of the more notable attempts:
Schindler’s List (1993)
Based on: Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982)
As far as Booker Prize winner adaptations go, this is the gold standard. Keneally’s novel was a fictionalised account of a German businessman and member of the Nazi party who went on to save the lives of 1,200 Jews during Hitler’s oppressive regime. However, it wasn’t until Steven Spielberg’s film that the book became a household name. Extolled unanimously for its sad yet uplifting portrait of a horrific tragedy, Schindler’s List was a blockbuster commercial success and that unusual movie adaptation which went on to transcend its source material.
Life of Pi (2012)
Based on: Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
Even for Ang Lee, who is adept at interpreting literature (Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility), Martel’s book was a challenge. A significant portion of its story dealt with a young boy stranded on a boat at sea with animals. The novel – often called “unfilmable” – also had a dense spiritual subtext. Before Lee, several directors had abandoned the project.
In the end though, the filmmaker surprised doubters with a visually sumptuous and surrealist take, featuring newcomer Suraj Sharma, which found a popular audience and won him the Best Director Oscar. The highest compliment came from Martel, who said that Lee had stayed faithful not just to the book but also to “its idea and intent”.
The English Patient (1996)
Based on: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
Sometimes, literary adaptations are about lateral thinking. Ondaatje’s voluminous book focussed on two timelines and different love stories unfolding in each of them. But the late Anthony Minghella smartly pared the story down to focus on the seductive, swooning romance between a Hungarian cartographer and a married Englishwoman in 1930s Libya. The movie became a global box office phenomenon, winning nine Oscars and inviting instant comparisons to that other desert-swept classic, Lawrence of Arabia.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Based on: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
The novel was the quintessential English tale of a butler too beholden to his status and professionalism to express his true feelings for a co-worker. Director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Booker Prize winner in her own right, collaborated to bring this subtle character study to life. Ivory and Jhabvala, both experts at a certain kind of repressed English drama, fleshed out the cast of supporting characters in the book and livened up the period details. Critics judged the attempt with favour and the film was a leading awards contender even if it wasn’t exactly the biggest draw at the ticket counter.
Midnight’s Children (2012)
Based on: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
When a novel wins not only the Booker Prize but also the Booker of Bookers (as this one in 2008), its film adaptation must contend with a towering legacy. Rushdie’s work was about India’s transition from colonial rule to independence told through a hero born at that midnight moment the country became free. It was a sweeping piece of prose, with elements of magic realism and political commentary. Several attempts to adapt the iconic book had failed to get off the ground in the past. Finally Rushdie himself adapted the story, directed by Deepa Mehta. The result was labelled incoherent and dull, made worse by listless performances. Midnight’s Children was an unequivocal critical and commercial flop unable to overcome the burden of great expectations.
Based on: Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999)
Coetzee is among an elite club of authors, who have won the Booker Prize twice, and has also received the Nobel Prize for literature. The writer’s high standing among literary aficionados can be daunting for anyone trying to adapt his works to film. Disgrace, about a college professor’s amoral hedonism in post-apartheid South Africa, is considered his masterpiece. The 2008 film was an Australian production, directed by Steve Jacobs, and starred John Malkovich. While dutiful to the novel in its gripping plot twists and turns, the movie didn’t capture the full scope of the central character’s inner complexities. It received faint praise and notched up respectable business but, as expected, never really surpassed Coetzee’s brilliance on page.