But much of the time she felt good. . . . It was as if the conflagration of her bouts with Karim had cast a special light on everything, a dawn light after a life lived in twilight. It was as if she had been born deficient and only now been gifted the missing sense.
—Monica Ali, Brick Lane
MONICA ALI'S BRICK LANE is certainly one of the most acclaimed novels of the past few years. The 2003 debut was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and its author was named one of Granta's best young British novelists based only on an early manuscript. So it takes a particular act of courage to jettison much of Brick Lane's plot and many of its characters in an attempt to turn it into a normal-length feature film. In doing so, director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan have crafted a genuinely different take on Ali's original: Whereas Brick Lane the four-hundred-plus-page novel was sprawling, spanning decades and even continents, Brick Lane the movie, running at just over a hundred minutes, is a model of focus and precision—a streamlined slice-of-life tale about a woman who finds herself faced with a difficult choice.
Ali's book tells the story of Nazneen (played in the film by Tannishtha Chatterjee), a Bangladeshi girl who, after an arranged marriage to the older, somewhat pathetic Chanu (Satish Kaushik), leaves her village for the titular East London neighborhood. Uneducated and trapped in a loveless marriage, Nazneen does not venture far from her small Bangladeshi community. Her life revolves around her plump, unattractive husband—listening to him snore, cutting his corns, enduring pontifications about his failure to get ahead. The initial period of their marriage, in the mid-'80s, leads to heartbreak when their first child, a boy, dies unexpectedly while still a baby. When the story picks up years later, in early 2001, Chanu and Nazneen have two young daughters, but Nazneen's life has, strikingly, not changed. Nor, for that matter, has Chanu's: His professional prospects have, if anything, diminished, although he still talks of better days to come. But when Nazneen starts work as a seamstress, she meets Karim (Christopher Simpson), a handsome young community organizer whose job entails bringing her stacks of jeans to repair. The two begin an affair, and Nazneen becomes "aware of her body, as though just now she had come to inhabit it for the first time." Meanwhile, the ethnic and religious tensions between white agitators and the neighborhood's Muslims escalate, finally boiling over in the wake of September 11.
Producer Alison Owen initially hired the renowned screenwriter Laura Jones (An Angel at My Table, Portrait of a Lady) to adapt the book. Jones's script largely reflected the breadth of Ali's story. "Obviously, she knows a lot about adaptations," director Gavron says. But Jones was based in Australia, which presented a problem. "The process of making this film was going to involve going into the [Bangladeshi] community—especially because we were outsiders," Gavron says. "We really wanted to bring to life the particularities of that world, and we wanted to work closely with members of the Bangladeshi Islamic community. Laura was so far away and couldn't be engaged in that ongoing process." The producers then turned to award-winning writer Morgan (Sex Traffic, Tsunami: The Aftermath), who lived near the real Brick Lane, knew the place rather well, and had a penchant for doing heavy research on her chosen topics. (Even so, the film shoot was initially beset by protests in and around the area, with organizers chastising its creators, including Ali, for being outsiders. Many in the community have since embraced the finished film.)
Gavron and Morgan set about tackling Ali's expansive novel anew. The novelist herself, according to Gavron, remained uninvolved in the project. "She was very hands-off," the director recalls. "I hadn't even met her when I started on the film." Perhaps that was for the best, as the duo would soon make some dramatic changes to the story. Morgan recalls that her early drafts were quite faithful to it, offering a generous view of Nazneen's arrival in England in 1985: "Every novel probably has five different films in them, and you can't make them all. There were a lot of really beautiful scenes [in 1985], but Sarah and I both came to realize, two or three drafts in, that it would become a huge film. We had to distill all that and to capture the magnitude of the journey."
"We initially had a thesis-antithesis-synthesis approach to the adaptation," Gavron explains. "It was structured so that we would see Nazneen's childhood in Bangladesh, then her early years in the UK and the loss of her first child. And then, in the third part, she would meet Karim." But as they worked on more and more drafts, the filmmakers realized that much of Nazneen's life before 2001 is spent in stasis. "In a way, the actual story begins in the year she meets Karim," says the director. "That's the year of her change. So we thought that if we looked at it through that prism, we could chart that change and suggest the backstory."
Ali's novel is deceptively diffuse. One experiences the story primarily from Nazneen's perspective, but the book features a vast range of characters and narrative byways. Anyone seeking to replicate its elaborate structure would be overwhelmed. The filmmakers' solution was, in Morgan's words, "to focus on the temporal landscape of the marriage." Gavron and Morgan turned Nazneen's reminiscences of Bangladesh, a major part of the novel, into manifestations of her psychic state: "We wanted to show this idealized childhood in Bangladesh haunting her waking dreams," says Gavron. "And to create the sense that she is living in this dreamworld—shutting out the realities of her mother's suicide and her sister's sad life."
One of the most striking changes from the novel—and, according to the director, one element she was particularly sorry to alter—is the context in which Nazneen's sister, Hasina, is presented. Ali's novel uses extensive letters sent by Hasina, detailing her troubled life in Bangladesh. These descriptions sometimes read like a journey through Nazneen's greatest fears for herself: Hasina escapes from her husband, finds employment in a factory, is shamed into losing her job, becomes a prostitute, then enters into another doomed marriage. "We explored doing a parallel story of two sisters," Gavron says. "But instead, we decided to use Nazneen's sister as a touchstone, an alter ego in a way, illuminating Nazneen's emotional interior life."
As Nazneen's relationships with her sister and with the broader Bangladeshi community (represented by the novel's teeming cast of supporting characters) faded into the background, the film emerged as the study of a marriage: a look at the broadening of Nazneen's world, in ways both good and bad, and how she views her life and her husband anew. This compression mandated other changes, including abandoning a riot that constitutes part of the novel's culmination. "We wrote it in, then we took it out," Morgan recalls. "In some ways, it's a perfect climax, but it also takes the focus off the relationship with Chanu, which had become central to the film."
The character of Chanu takes many subtle turns over the years in Ali's novel. The shorter span of the film meant that, by necessity, these shifts had to be more sharply indicated. At the same time, Gavron and Morgan felt that Chanu represented a group within Bangladeshi society that should be expressed more clearly: "When we translated Chanu to the film, he came to represent the voice of the older, aspirational community that wanted to come to England and integrate," Morgan says. "They're alienated from the younger generation, which doesn't want integration." In the film, this distinction crystallizes when Chanu bravely denounces the notion that Islam is a banner around which to rally: "Islam is not a country," he declares. "Three million died in East Pakistan in this lifetime. . . . What was that? Brotherly love?" The aging Bangladeshi man cuts a poignantly dignified figure in his jacket and tie amid the skullcaps, flowing robes, and thick beards of the agitated, radicalized younger generation, as he argues that his Islam resides in his heart and that "that is the only thing worth defending." The scene gains further drama from the fact that Chanu, in the midst of a community meeting, addresses his comments directly to Karim. "There's definitely a parental thing going on between Chanu and Karim," Morgan notes, adding that Karim isn't much older than the son of Nazneen and Chanu would have been, had he lived.
To those familiar with the novel, these changes may seem radical, and in some sense they are. However, the film won an important supporter as it neared completion, when Ali finally watched a rough cut. "I was very nervous about it," Gavron recalls. Luckily, the author was impressed, and she and Gavron have since become close. Indeed, Gavron and Morgan's version of Brick Lane calls to mind another classic adaptation that tackled much-admired source material with the author's blessing: Elia Kazan's 1955 adaptation of East of Eden, which dealt with only the final third of John Steinbeck's family epic. By telling a more intimate, immediate story, Kazan sacrificed the novel's narrative scope for increased emotional depth. A similar alchemy occurs here: By abandoning the rambling ways of Ali's novel, Brick Lane the film rediscovers and reimagines the powerful story at its heart.
More from Bookforum's The Moviegoer