Monday, October 24, 2005

Books / Movies: "The Constant Gardener", by John Le Carré

John Le Carré's "The Constant Gardener" was the last of the books that I finished from my first raid of the Yokohama City Public Library. In fact, I was actually a bit late returning it (they only let you check books out for 15 days, and I had gotten six--the limit), as not finishing it was simply not an option.

Surprisingly enough for an avid fan of Cold War spy thrillers (Le Carré's mainstay), "The Constant Gardener" was the first Le Carré book that I have read. Of course, as anyone who has seen the movie will already know, "The Constant Gardener" has nothing to do with the Cold War (though Le Carré being Le Carré, he does mention the Soviets, Communism, the Iron Curtain, etc. a time or two) and very little to do with spies. In fact, it is mostly about Africa, and how unchecked, state-sanctioned corporate greed is running amok there in the form of big pharmaceutical companies. The book opens with the murder of the wife of a British diplomat who is stationed to Kenya, the gardener referred to by the book's title. Apparently, she had been digging a bit too deeply into the African track record of a new miracle drug that treats tuberculosis.

And that is all I will say about the plot of the book, as it is a very plot-driven book, with twists and turns galore. Which is not at all a bad thing in Le Carré's masterful hands. For a writer of popular fiction, he certainly approaches it from a literary bent. Characterisation is perhaps his strongest suit, and you find yourself identifying with several of the major characters, likeable or not, simply because you know them so well, you completely understand why they are what they are and why they must do what they do.

Anyone who has had more than a passing flirtation with writing fiction will tell you that, given strong, well thought-out characters, sometimes the story can be lead in directions that the writer never consciously intended, because the characters move as if under their own power. Given Le Carré's serpentine plots and vast conspiracies, he probably governs his characters with an iron hand, or spends a lot of time reforming the plot around their actions, but the result is seamless: a fictional world that allows, encourages, nay, demands total willing suspension of disbelief.

The book? Thumbs up!

The movie? Ugh.

Allow me to elaborate. Lyani and I watched the movie yesterday night (capping off her birthday celebrations). I had just finished the book a week and a half ago (give or take a few days), and I could not follow the bloody plot! Obviously, when a novel of over 100 or so pages is transformed into a screenplay, some compression is necessary. Some characters must be combined, minor plot points must be omitted or only hinted at, etc. But the screenwriters of the movie version of "The Constant Gardener" did a pretty horrific job. The plot was so compressed and mucked about with that the progression made little sense, and the melodrama was turned on full blast. The movie even hit a preachy not or two, where the book was able to make the same point much more powerfully without resorting to cheap Hollywood tactics.

The acting, of course, was fantastic, as you would expect when you hire a bunch of British actors, led by Ralph Fiennes. Tragically, good acting cannot save a bad screenplay, and the movie must receive a thumbs down from me.

Lyani was a little kinder, but even so, she found the plot next to impossible to comprehend. Being fair, I don't think that I could have done a better job of compressing the plot into something that would drive a two-hour movie (why not make it two and a half, or even better: three hours? the story is certainly epic enough to make it work). So I am going to say that maybe a movie version should not have been even attempted.

Having said all of this, the movie is currently rated 7.7 over at IMDB, so maybe people who have not read the book find the movie much more palatable than I did. I would give it a 5.5 or 6.0 at best, simply on the strength of the acting and the excellent visuals.

Summary: read the book, it is excellent! If you must see the movie, please do so before reading the book. You will thank me later.

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