Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 June - 5 July 2006
Issue No. 801
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Novel drama

Hani Mustafa examines the discrepancies between film and novel

To balance the scales

Beyond illusion

Cinema has always fed on literature, and the Egyptian film industry is no exception. As early as 1930 Mohamed Karim directed an adaptation of Mohamed Hussien Haikal's Zainab, which he also scripted. First published in 1913, Zainab is considered by many literary critics the first Egyptian novel.

Among the most significant screen adaptations of literary texts is Youssef Chahine's 1969 film Al-Ard, based on a novel by the same title published the previous year by Abdel-Rahman El-Sharqawi. As is often the case, the cinematic version deviated from a straightforward re-presentation of the events of the novel, with Chahine deciding that his film should end with the death of Abu Suwailam on his land. Tawfik Saleh's 1972 film Al-Makhdu'oun (The Deceived), based Ghassan Kanafani's novella Rijal Fil - Shams ( Men In the Sun ) similarly departs from the literary text. In the film, though not the novel, the Palestinians being smuggled in a water tank knock on the walls of the tank before they suffocate. When asked why he had changed the ending, Saleh replied that the novel was written in 1963, but by the early 1970s the Palestinians had become engaged in armed struggle and were hijacking airplanes, actions for which Saleh argued the knocking on the walls of the tank could serve as metaphor.

The screen adaptation of Alaa El-Aswani's phenomenally successful 2002 novel 'Imaret Ya'koubian ( The Yacoubian Building ) does not stray too far from the text, and whatever changes have been made often boil down to no more than minor differences of opinion between El-Aswani, the director Marwan Hamed and his father, the scriptwriter Wahid Hamed. The film includes some documentary material not in the novel, an attempt to furnish background material for the socio-political and economic changes that have taken place in Cairo's Downtown area, though this comprises only stock black and white -- and a few new -- shots, and narration by Yehia El-Fakharani.

The film mimics the novel in the way it follows several storylines, though to accommodate them within a reasonable screen time some important details found in the novel have been omitted. There are, too, omissions that are probably due to the fact that film scripts, unlike novels, have first to be approved by the censorship office. The latter category probably includes the sequence in the novel where Taha El-Shazli, having been refused admission to the Police Academy because he is the son of a humble door keeper, writes a letter to the president's office to complain only to receive a letter refusing his petition. There is another storyline that may have also been omitted due to political sensitivity. In the novel Mohamed Azzam (in the film played by Nour El-Sherif), a onetime shoeshine man who is now one of Downtown's most affluent businessmen, is told by minister Kamal El-Fouli (played by Khaled Saleh) that he will escape investigation only if he hands over a quarter of the profits from his Japanese car dealership, expected to reap around LE200 million annually. The money, El-Fouli says, is for the "big man" -- presumably the president. This the film omits, preferring to end this particular plot with the narcotics police finding heroin in one of Azzam's shops, and his subsequent blackmail by El-Fouli, who demands half of the profits.

Along with the omissions came additions, apparently written for Adel Imam, who plays the role of Zaki El-Dessouqi. Among the few comic moments in the film is the scene in which El-Dessouqi meets Hatim El-Rashidi (played by Khaled El-Sawi) and his boyfriend Abd Rabu (played by Basim Samra), while waiting for the elevator. El-Dessouqi comments on Abd Rabu's athletic build as El-Rashidi stands by silently.

The film also adds a scene in which El-Rashidi attempts to convince Abd Rabu that their relationship does not contravene any religious taboos, and transforms Idriss, the family servant who first seduced El-Rashidi into a homosexual relationship, into a child molester.

The end of this storyline is also tampered with. In the novel Abd Rabu's son dies in hospital and he interprets this as a sign that God is punishing him for his relationship with El-Rashidi. Eventually Abd Rabu kills his former lover, though in the film El-Rashidi is murdered by a one-night stand he has picked up in the street.

The film also condenses the plot involving Taha El-Shazli (played by Adel Imam's son Mohamed). Seemingly worried about missing any elements in this particular storyline, the director touches on them cursorily, and in a way that serves to weaken the plot. El-Shazli's role in assassinating the state security officer was far more realistic in the novel, where the assassins ride a truck filled with butagas tanks while in the film they are in a newspaper distribution car, owned by Emadeddin Adib, the producer of the film. Was this an unpaid advertisement? The assassination itself was also executed with a great deal of American-style fanfare.

Other minor changes included changing the name of the man working for El-Dessouqi from the difficult-to-pronounce Abaskharoun to the easier Fanous. Abaskharoun's brother is in the film called Malak Armanious, whereas in the novel he was Malak Khela. This change was apparently made to avoid the threat of legal action from the relatives of one Malak Khela who was once a resident in the real Yacoubian Building.

The film presents the same blend of drama as in the novel -- some sex, some politics, some love and an attempt to present the changes that have affected Downtown. In the novel this was all done lightly; the film further simplifies the story in a manner which the filmmakers presumably assume will appeal to a mass audience.

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