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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Midnight's Children' has too much story to condense to film

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Special Photo: Paladin Anita Majumdar, left, and Rahul Bose star in "Midnight's Children."

Midnight's Children

(NR)

2 stars out of 4 stars

If not for "The Satanic Verses" -- a book that resulted in him receiving a still-in-effect Fatwa (a bounty-rewarded Muslim death sentence) -- "Midnight's Children" would probably be the best-known novel by writer Salman Rushdie. Both mixed fact, conjecture, religion and fantasy and each has been described by many as being "unfilmable." Wouldn't you know it -- they were right -- kind of.

The biggest problem with the movie isn't the main plot. It centers around two men that were born on the same day -- Aug. 15, 1947 -- one that also marked the date that India became an independent state. Rushdie's premise suggests all Indian children born on that day were blessed with a unique magical power or go on to play a significant role in the history of the newborn country. Good enough so far.

On the evening of that fateful day, a nurse -- inspired by the socialist ranting of a man she believed to be a prophet -- switched the identities of boys born to rich and poor parents. Would the behavior and personalities of the boys be affected by their families' wealth and status (or lack thereof) or would their respective bloodlines and lineages be the deciding factor in their ultimate destinies? Even better (although mostly tragic), the plot gets thicker and more engrossing.

What spools out after this event is labyrinthine in scope and includes more than three dozen supplemental characters and even the most casual of viewers will come to the conclusion that these subplots deserve far more expansion, exposition and fleshing-out, yet it never comes.

As with literally thousands of other past novels adapted for the screen, director Deepa Mehta (who co-wrote the script with narrator Rushdie) is faced with the unenviable task of deciding on what bits of the novel to condense, re-imagine or let fall by the wayside. With 446 pages containing concise, carefully-sculpted words, the novel is a rich, dense and atmospheric thicket of information that could not possibly be crammed or distilled down to any commercially-viable feature-length film.

This same type of conundrum was faced with the 1976 adaptation of the (not dissimilarly-themed) 1969 Irwin Shaw work "Rich Man, Poor Man." Rather than sacrifice the integrity of the story, the producers (who originally considered a shorter theatrical release) opted for the artistically favorable, yet far less lucrative option of TV mini-series. The 629 pages of Shaw's text were translated into 12 one-hour installments and little, if any of the original source material was omitted in the process. To this day, "Rich Man, Poor Man" is regarded by audiences and many in the know as one of the most popular and critically acclaimed literary network TV adaptations of all-time.

This begs the question: Is a sprawling story about class warfare coupled alongside Indian independence as told through a cosmic/fantasy lens viable as a theatrical release? Unless you plan on making an eight-hour movie, the answer is no. Given the ever-widening spectrum of niche programming on cable, satellite and streaming TV and the popularity of episodic filmmaking (Netflix's "House of Cards" is a prime recent example), "Midnight's Children" would have been far better served had in been produced for smaller screens.

"Midnight's Children" is a movie that will die a quick death at the box office but will likely fare well in the post-theatrical market on home video. Thousands -- and "thousands" is not a very desirable numeric description when it comes to feature films -- will snap it up immediately and others will enjoy its meager, painfully unrealized triumphs as a rental. Given the considerable breadth, depth and immense scope of Rushdie's original vision, Mehta's film did as good of a job as it could in its 146 minutes. Rarely will you come across a movie that is almost two- and-a-half hours long that is also five-and-a-half hours too short. (Paladin)