THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST
From Novel to Screen: The Adaptation
While finishing The Namesake, in New York in 2007, Nair read the manuscript of Hamid's unpublished novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. She found it immensely readable and was thrilled to have found a springboard from which to enter the worlds of both modern-day Lahore and New York. Through her own Mirabai Films and Pilcher's New York-based Cine Mosaic, the two optioned the film rights to the novel.
"It was to be a very complex adaptation and I wanted to be very involved," says Nair. "The book is basically a monologue. The thriller element is there but in a very elegant and psychological way. The ending is more ambiguous."
The character of the American, played by Liev Schreiber, needed to be fleshed out into a living and breathing character. "He had to have an equal intelligence, and as much grace and longing and pain as Changez," says Nair.
What resonated with Hamid about Nair was that she profoundly and intuitively understood his novel. "I really clicked with her as a person," he says. "She is someone who comes from southern Asia and has spent many years here but has lived abroad for almost half her life. I am the same." Hamid came to the US to study at Princeton University, then lived in London for several years before returning to Lahore; Nair left India to attend Harvard University, and subsequently moved to New York.
Hamid recalls when Nair told him she was going to add a third act to the story of his novel. "The book deals with the character of Changez going to America and then coming back to Pakistan. Mira wanted to have more of what happens in Pakistan, and the context for the conversation with the American, which is just hinted at in the novel." This addition was the first significant departure from the novel. "My main sense was that Mira is a filmmaker and knows what she is doing," says Hamid. "If a film, her film, needs to be this way I was going to trust her on that."
Meanwhile, finding a writer to accurately render both worlds of corporate Wall Street and Lahore in South Asia, was proving impossible. "Talking to writers from all over the world was a very revealing process," Nair admits. "One writer said, 'First off, we're going to have to drop the title. You couldn't drag me to see a film with the word 'fundamentalist' in it.' There was real ignorance of this part of the world, the subcontinent. There was no knowledge of the cultural layers, of the refinements. It also revealed the myopia with which many people see the world."
Nair and Pilcher looked closer to home, to the young writer Ami Boghani, who has worked closely with Nair for years, and to Mohsin Hamid, who had never even read a screenplay before joining the writing team. "I was hesitant," he admits. "Partly because I was writing my novel. Partly because I thought this was Mira's film. I wanted to enjoy it as a well wisher but I didn't want to get into the conflicts that I thought would be inevitable if we were having to argue out the details of how things should work. But then I kept telling myself the film is inspired by the novel, but it isn't the novel on screen. Once I embraced that way of looking at things, it became much easier to become involved. I also thought it would be a good learning experience. I would become more familiar with this art form I know very little about."
"In the novel, Mohsin masterfully built a thriller out of two men sitting at a table," Boghani says. "Changez is the eloquent orator and the reader effectively occupies the place of his silent companion. Never breaking from the one-sided monologue, Mohsin only hints at the context in which these two men are meeting." She adds that, "Our major task in the film adaptation was developing that context by answering the key question, 'Why is Changez telling his story?' We had to translate the dance of mutual suspicion into visual language by fleshing out the two men sitting at that table and understanding how they got there."
Two drafts were written over two and a half years. The team put much of the script's foundation in place: Changez's family, his relationship with his father, the tone of the film and the examination of the two fundamentals of money and religion.
"What we found was that to write a thriller was not an easy thing," says Nair. "We needed someone more adept at that. We found Bill Wheeler through a screenplay we all admired. The four of us spent a week together and mapped out the journey. Bill then wrote a series of drafts. " Wheeler comments, "While I enjoy very much novels and plays that are highly ambiguous -- the work of Pinter comes to mind -- I didn't think the ambiguity of the novel could sustain a cinematic narrative. Yet the success of Mohsin's novel is very intertwined with this frame narrative, specifically the intrigue and menace of the implied confrontation between the two men. Who was the unnamed American? Was he an intelligence agent? Was he meeting Changez with the intent to turn him? Capture him? And what about Changez? Did the American have reason to fear him? Could it be that the modality Changez had 'reluctantly' embraced was a political approach that included violence? These questions swam in my head while reading the novel, fascinating me and pulling me in, and I wanted the audience asking these same questions. This ongoing sense of mystery around Changez's ultimate disposition -- the nature of his reaction to the xenophobia that enveloped him in 2001 -- was an element I was determined not to lose in the film."
"In a collaborative process, the writing team decided that like the novel, the story would shift between two timeframes, but unlike the novel, the present-day story would be a fully fleshed out espionage story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This required the invention of several new elements: the kidnapping of Anse Rainier, the presence of an American intelligence unit in Lahore, and most importantly, the character of Bobby Lincoln -- the cinematic equivalent to the unnamed American in Mohsin's novel." Wheeler says, "Giving Bobby just and reasonable arguments for the U.S. presence in Pakistan, while maintaining the power of Changez's critique of that presence, his experience in Underwood Samson and the U.S. overall, would (we hoped) allow an audience to engage the material through their own perspective. Working with partners from such varied cultural backgrounds made our collaboration an attempt, like that of Changez and Bobby, to reach across cultural divides to try and discover the things that make us all human."
As a novelist, Hamid found it fascinating to watch a film being made. "I have so much more appreciation for the art form now that I have seen how difficult it is to do," he says. "In many ways, Mira does what I do as a novelist -- that is to construct a story and to painstakingly craft it. But she also does things I don't have to, like marshalling 230 people for weeks on end. What I can do in a sentence or a paragraph, she has to build an entire set to do, and she needs carpenters, electricians and painters to do it. I operate in a pleasant little cocoon," he goes on. "Just me and my computer, quietly working away. She has to create this beautiful, impactful thing in complete chaos, with phones ringing, last-minute problems developing, traffic violations, electricity shortages, all kinds of crazy stuff." Hamid confesses, "I am much more appreciative now of how difficult it is to make a good film."
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