If anyone should compose the screen adaptation of a beloved book, it’s the author, right?
In the case of “Midnight’s Children,” maybe not. Salman Rushdie co-wrote the script from his 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel, and the movie arrives looking beautiful on screen but feeling overburdened by unnecessary plot points.
The complex story centers on two boys born in Bombay at midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, which is the moment India abrogated British rule. One infant is born into wealth; the other’s lineage is complicated, but he would ostensibly be raised by poor wandering musicians. Except the babies are swapped at birth. Saleem, raised in the well-to-do family, narrates the story.
What follows is a retelling of 30 years of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi history interspersed with the evolution of Saleem and his counterpart-turned-rival, Shiva. Along with multiple narrative threads that involve the concrete dramas of war, poverty, birth and death, the story dips into magical realism. All children born between midnight and 1 a.m. on that historic date harbor special powers. Saleem, for example, can conjure the entire crew of gifted kids into his bedroom using only his nose.
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The film, directed by Deepa Mehta (“Water”), is stunning to watch. Between the colorful textiles and the lush landscapes, the elephants on parade and the stilt walkers, “Midnight’s Children” is a visual treat.
The plot, however, feels like a mad dash, as if Rushdie (who co-adapted the screenplay with Mehta) was trying to shoehorn every single storyline from his novel into the film. During the second half of the movie, narrative switchbacks arrive at breakneck speed, and the whole endeavor starts to feel exhausting.
It’s all the more confounding given that the first half-hour or more is devoted to the leisurely unfolding histories of Saleem’s parents and grandparents. The complex lineage makes interesting fodder for the novel, but when time is of the essence, cuts must be made. The superfluous back story comes at the cost of fully realized narrative arcs for the film’s title characters.
Along with lovely cinematography, the cast is excellent, especially Satya Bhabha, who plays the grown-up Saleem, and Shahana Goswami, portraying his mother. They offer up characters worth watching, if only we could see their stories thoroughly develop.
“Midnight’s Children” was a spectacularly celebrated novel, so it’s easy to see why cutting it to pieces would be difficult. Letting someone else do it might be the easy way out, but sometimes the simplest path is the right one.