I am a fan of books being made into movies, yet I always make sure to read the book first and then see its cinematic adaptation. That’s because I am a true bookworm who loves to smell and savour the story, relish the lives of characters and the lush setting of a book one page at a time.
A movie adaptation most often has brought alive the characters I had imagined in my head yet at times they have totally ruined the fun by giving a certain face and look to the heroes of a book that was in complete contrast to what I had thought them to be.
Books and their screen adaptations will always be part of a timeless debate. But what happens when a book you wrote on your own life is adapted for the big screen. Would you be able to look at it objectively, agree with the way the actors portrayed you and the director showcased your life? Authors Cheryl Strayed of ‘Wild’ fame and Saroo Brierley on whose life the movie ‘Lion’ was made shared their views in an interesting talk titled From Memoir to Movie at the recently concluded Emirates Literature Festival 2018.
Both their stories are incredible and awe-inspiring. There is Cheryl, who at the age of 26, heartbroken by her mother’s death from cancer, embarked on a 1,100 mile hike along the arduous Pacific Crest Trail in the US. She was a complete novice with no prior experience of hiking, she carried no phone, very less money and only a backpack.
The Pacific Crest trail is 4279 km long and its mostly dotted with forest and mountainous terrain. The hike had been a journey of self-discovery that resulted in her hugely successful book ‘Wild’ published in 2012. American actress Reese Witherspoon acted and produced the cinematic adaptation of ‘Wild’ in 2014 and went on to win Academy Award nominations for her role as Cheryl.
Saroo Brierley too had a compelling story to tell in his memoir titled A Long Way Home published in 2013. Born in the Indian city of Khandwa, Saroo only aged five got separated from his family at a train station. Lost and helpless wandering on the streets of Calcutta he was eventually adopted by an Australian couple. After 25 years living in Australia through Google Earth Saroo was able to trace his family in India. His emotional journey and reunion with his birth mother was portrayed in the movie ‘Lion’ by actor Dev Patel who played the role of Saroo. The movie was a commercial success and a favourite at the Academy Awards as well.
Cheryl says the stakes are high when your memoir is being made into a movie. “I
trusted Reese, and she seemed really honest and it turned out to be a very collaborative process.” In fact in an earlier interview Cheryl has said that when Wild was being published in 2012 she had sent an advance copy to Reese and in the hope of receiving a positive call from Reese she had even lit a candle in her bedroom. Indeed three days later she did receive that call. “During the making of Wild I was on the sets almost every day and even did a cameo as a pickup truck driver in one of the scenes.”
Although there was no role for Saroo, a surprise awaited him at the end of the movie– a link to the documentary Homeward Bound on his real struggle to find his mom and snapshots of Saroo’s adopted and biological families.
Both Cheryl and Saroo were able to see the movies very objectively, although Saroo did admit, “If I had directed the movie it would have been very different”. And therein lies the truth that each person’s perspective is unique. Cheryl sums it the best when she says, “I told myself that I was only the writer of the book and this movie is an interpretation of my creation.” They were both extremely appreciative of the actors who essayed their roles, Saroo was especially impressed by Sunny Pawar, the young Indian actor who played his childhood role.
Their memoirs being made into movies meant immense public attention, Red Carpet welcome at film festivals, hobnobbing with Hollywood A-listers and of course numerous clicks and selfies. How did they handle all this attention? “For me it was like visiting a foreign land called Hollywood,” Cheryl says brightly. Wild was nominated in various categories at all the prestigious awards in Hollywood including the Oscars, Golden Globe, People’s Choice Awards among others. Lion too was nominated at the Academy awards, the British Academy awards, the Australian Academy of Cinema Awards. Saroo attended all the award functions, often accompanied by his mom Sue and dad John. “My mom and Nicole Kidman had so many conversations that they became like soul sisters.”
On writing memoirs Saroo and Cheryl had some valuable advice for the audience. The topmost aspect of writing a memoir is the decision to share not only your own life with others but also private details about your family members. Before writing A Long Way Home Saroo discussed this aspect with his parents, who gave him the go-ahead. “There was so much positivity in the story for humanity that we all felt compelled to write this book to give hope to others,” says Saroo.
Cheryl admits being extremely honest in her book and her siblings were supportive of her writing. “I had a great mum but not a great dad. I wrote to seek the truth. I had to write about his violence and abuse, of course he was enraged.”
Cheryl wrote Wild 17 years after that inspiring trek and it took Saroo 25 years to trace his birth mother. Delving into one’s memory and retrieving incidents and events that shaped the journey can look like a daunting task. Cheryl’s advice to memoir writers is to just begin the writing process. “Write what you don’t remember, exercise your memory muscle and it will all come out.” Saroo used to listen to music to delve into the deepest corners of his memory recalling his early days. He too says, “Just put pen to paper.”