Adaptating Stories

Although The God of Small Things primarily details the tragedy and resolution of Estha and Rahel’s family, it is also about Ayemenem as a whole and how it changes alongside the focal characters. As Roy recounts the daily life in Ayemenem both in the past and present, she includes kathakali performances prominently in two sections.

In the first, she tells of how a five-star hotel chain had bought the Heart of Darkness. As a five-star hotel chain would do, they renovate everything about the area (except the smell) and even incorporate elements of the local history. Of course, these snippets of history are primarily used to sell the hotel to the guests, with “Traditional Kerala Umbrella,” “Traditional Bridal Dowry-box,” and the hotel’s name itself, “Heritage,” serving as the primary examples of the commodification of history and culture (120). Of course, the selling off of culture doesn’t end there, as the hotel even incorporates kathakali performances; however, the hotel itself takes liberates to slash “six-hour classics” to “twenty-minute cameos” (121). To add insult to injury, the performances are staged by the swimming pool, wherein the guests seem to give little attention to the already lobotomized performances; Kunti revealing her secret to Karna is truncated to less than a sentence. Roy’s depiction of “Heritage” seems to demonstrate the commodification of stories and culture that ultimately trades any substance or meaning for shallow excitement.

In contrast, Roy later presents us with performers from the Heart of Darkness. They recognize “their turning to tourism to stave of starvation” and as a result, “they stopped at the temple to ask the pardon of their gods” (218). As their performance’s purpose changes from mere survival to self-actualization. As just one example, Roy sums up the Kathakali Man as “the most beautiful of men. Because his body is his soul. His only instrument” (219). Although Roy then recounts the increasing unwantedness of the Kathakali Man as “He becomes a Regional Flavor” just to survive, she then expands what was once a fragment of a sentence into nearly three pages of story. Karna’s despair, comfort, shock, and resolution and Kunti’s identity and purpose is brought to life while the Love Laws once again play a major role. The performance, now done justice, lends insight both into culture and into our principle character’s past.

Karna and Kunti

Over time, all stories are adaptable. Whether that be through simple translation or through massive shifts like a different media, all stories change. The Bible has been adapted into movies, television, vegetable cartoons, etc. (not even mentioning the thousands of translations), the story of Buddha has been made into movies, and even modern stories like “Forrest Gump” and “The Office” receive adaptations. For all these adaptations, something about the story must change. Whether that be a phrase that now becomes lost in translation or a theme that no longer resonates, adaptations often lose substance.

Such is the case with the kathakali performances. Their adaptation into mere hotel entertainment achieves a purpose, it certainly adds value to the hotel and garners the performers their livelihood, but it loses the emotional weight and magic that made the original performances matter. As such, the hotel acts are horrible adaptations because in their hollow pursuit of the appearance of seeming cultured, they’ve lost cultre.

Better than the original?

However, not all adaptations are bad adaptations. Adaptations are created for a reason, that being a new purpose: for foreigners who can’t read in another language, for younger audiences, for more bombastic special effects and acting, etc. Adaptations are necessary because originals are often too rigid to allow for what the author or audience wants.

This sentiment leads me to Roy’s adaptation of Kunti and Karna by the riverside. While Rahel and Estha watch the original performance, we read Roy’s adapted version. In this case, Roy adapts the performance because it’s a simple necessity of an author to condense things down until nothing but what’s necessary is told. Of course, Roy’s telling of the story doesn’t explain the lore, voices, etc. of the performance, but it brings what Roy needs. Parallel to Rahel and Estha’s story, Roy’s version of Kunti and Karna tells of despair, familial connection and conflict, and the Love Laws that both conveys the emotion of the original story and ties it together with the overall story. Roy’s adaptation is a good (or at least better) adaptation because it cuts down the story while still keeping the original themes intact and connecting those themes back to her story.

The two adaptations, at the hotel and at the temple, demonstrate how we ought to tell and retell stories. Often, we must retell stories — in Roy’s case she can’t literally show us the six-hour performance — however, we must take care so that whatever adaptation we create, watch, and/or read is something that’s both faithful enough to the original and different enough to serve a distinct purpose lest we, like tourists, merely produce and consume rather than tinker, re-imagine, and learn.

2 thoughts on “Adaptating Stories

  1. Alex, you bring up one of the parts of the novel with which I have long struggled. I feel like I understand why Roy put the description of the “real” kathakali dance in there, and why it is important for Rahel and Estha to be there, but in terms of the power and meaning of the myth itself that she tells — or “adapts,” as you say — it has always been somewhat lost on me. And yes, I feel I would understand it much more if I could actually be there, and see it, and be more immersed in the folklore.

    But your explanation of its connection with the lives of Rahel and Estha makes a lot of sense to me — and this idea of the need to retell stories, even if they are only adaptations, is a powerful concept.

    I would also mention, and this goes back to one of my original questions about who is the intended audience for the book, that for Chapter 12 — “Kochu Thomban” — the audience is not the Western/American audience to which I think Roy is speaking for most of the novel. That chapter is really for the people of Kerala themselves — and I myself, an American, can only ever be an outsider to those stories. It is a better adaptation than at the hotel — and I am immersed in the culture through the power of storytelling and the lives of Rahel and Estha — but it’s still not for me.

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  2. MEENAH H

    I really enjoyed reading this post and it definitely made me think. After reading this post, it helped me to understand and clarify some of the more confusing parts of the book that I was having trouble comprehending. I really enjoyed reading about all of the connections within the novel and in the world, and it is a great analysis of the novel overall.

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