Book vs Adaptation: These Foolish Things / The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The book

these foolish thingsAlthough current editions are all re-named to reflect the recent movie title, Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel was published as THESE FOOLISH THINGS. It introduces us to Dr Ravi Kapoor who is of Indian heritage but considers himself English. He is married to an English woman and her widowed father, Norman, is living with the Kapoors because he keeps getting kicked out of nursing homes due to his behaviour (he’s basically a slovenly, lecherous old man with a foul mouth). At the hospital where he works Kapoor comes across Muriel, an elderly woman who fell in her council flat and was not found for two days. This causes a media outcry which turns into something else when it becomes clear Muriel is a fairly nasty bigot. Mostly due to his desperation at wanting to be rid of his disgusting father-in-law Kapoor and his cousin Sonny, who still lives in India, eventually decide to open a retirement home in Bangalore which they will run specifically for elderly English people who no longer want to live in England or who can’t afford to. Kapoor uses Norman’s obsession with sex to entice him to make the move and other elderly folk move for their own reason. Unexpectedly Muriel moves too though her reasons are not made clear until well into the novel.

The book is a very readable exploration of the difficulties associated with ageing in modern societies. For the most part the issues are dealt with in a light, fairly undemanding way but it’s not all frothy stuff. While Norman’s never-ending obsession with his impotence is a bit tiresome and tawdry his underlying fear that he doesn’t matter any more because he can’t be a real man is very realistic. Most of the characters are afraid in some way and their worries are well depicted and very credible. Evelyn is a widow with two adult children, one of whom poorly invested her husband’s retirement savings which is what forces her to move to India. Her strained relationship with the children, depicted from both her point of view and theirs, is a highlight of the book. At least in the Anglo Saxon culture there are not a lot of accepted norms for how these particular kind of relationships should play out in the modern context and everyone scrabbling around trying to work it out seemed pretty credible to me.

I must admit though to feeling uncomfortable at some of Moggach’s depictions of Indian culture. I understand that she was deliberately showing the country through the eyes of a bunch of old, white and sometimes racist people but there was nothing provided to counterbalance their view. The fact that the book was bulging with stereotypes (all Indian products being inferior to their English counterparts, people working in call centres and so on) was bad enough but it was the scenes which I think I was meant to find endearing that were most off-putting to me. For example one of the female characters (I think it’s Evelyn) at one point quite lovingly compares the hair of a local girl to the coat of a Labrador she once owned. Squirm..

As an exploration of the inner lives of a set of people the book is, overall, successful. There wouldn’t be too many readers who would fail to identify with one or other character, even if it is one of the children of the ageing characters, and there are definitely thoughts to be provoked with regard to the issues of ageing well in our modern world. The book’s exotic setting was less successfully depicted as it really did not seem to  even attempt to offer an alternative to every stereotype that has ever existed about India.

The adaptation

TheBestExoticMarigoldHotel50872f2011’s THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, with its cast of superb English actors, is only very loosely based on Maggoch’s book. It is basically the story of an Indian hotel which its owner, who inherited the property from his father, markets to the English elderly as an alternative retirement option. After the briefest of setups, generally explaining why each person decides to go to India, the film then depicts what happens to each person once they arrive in the country. Some thrive in the new environment and some, one in particular, don’t.

The Kapoors don’t feature at all here and there are only three characters directly based on characters in the book, with others being a mixture of mashups and completely new characters. In fact the children of these old stalwarts don’t feature at all. The biggest departure from the book though is really that the characters are all very muted when compared to those in the book. For example in the book Norman is truly repugnant, in the movie he barely registers as occasionally offensive. Muriel’s overt racism is also heavily toned down.

That said though it’s hard not to like the movie on its own terms. With some of England’s best actors including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, you can’t really go too wrong and the ensemble cast does work really well here in allowing the individual stories to play out. It’s not exactly ground-breaking and most of it is fairly predictable but it is…pleasantly entertaining if not exactly thought-provoking. With the exception of Graham’s story (he’s the character played by Tom Wilkinson), which I found far more contrived and not really credible at all, the stories all offer something interesting about the process of learning new things at any age and the excellent cast does well with what is a fairly ordinary script. The film did not make me as uneasy as the book did in the way it treated India and Indians though there is still some level of discomfort at the way Indian characters are only truly successful if they’re serving a Brit or being assisted by one and there are still more clichés and stereotypes than I think we really need to be seeing in the 21st century.

The winner?

This is difficult as neither the book nor the film are either outstanding or truly awful. They’re both…OK. In the end though I think I’d have to award this bout to the film, mostly because of the excellent cast who light up the screen even though none of them are terribly stretched by their roles or the script,

If you’re coming to the book because you’ve loved the film I’d be wary as the book isn’t nearly as engaging or funny as the film and the stories are quite different. The book has a harsher, probably more realistic sensibility but is also a lot more patronising in its depiction of Anglo-Indian relations.


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10 Responses to Book vs Adaptation: These Foolish Things / The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this. Ageing brings with it all sorts of complications and I don’t just mean physical aches and pains. Negotiating the reality of having (or being) and elderly parent or parent-in-law is a challenge. So is the whole world of how one lives one’s life as an elderly adult. I’m glad the novel takes an honest look at that aspect of life.


  2. I’ve seen the film (with my local book group) and was wondering about reading the book. I don’t think I will now having read your review. The book group members are nearly all in the retired age group so we did find it funny and as you say the cast was superb – but none of us fancied retiring to India! 🙂


    • I’m not quite in that age group yet Margaret but I’m close enough that I could see the humour of the film – I’m not sure about retiring to India though – some of it appealed greatly but I have promised myself that if I retire to anywhere other than Australia it will be somewhere cool.


  3. Norman Price says:

    Bernadette- I enjoyed the film but with such a repugnant [and impotent ] Norman I don’t think I would enjoy the book. Deborah Moggach was quite charming when I contacted her about a character with my surname in one of her TV plays, but her treatment of Norman in the book is worrying. 😉


    • LOL Norman…I definitely wouldn’t imagine you as anything like the Norman of the book…he would never be moved by the words of a translated crime novel. But yes best to avoid this particular namesake I think.


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  5. Kathy D. says:

    Very interesting insights and comparison. Given that the movie underwhelmed me, other than the stellar cast, I don’t think I’ll read the book given what you’ve said. Bigoted attitudes toward the people of India are very outdated or should be.
    The movie was interesting in parts, but the script was rather tepid, which was disappointing, given the cast. Friends had raved about the film, but when I saw it I didn’t feel the same way.
    It was an okay movie, which could have been better, given the actors. I found the characters, as a whole, the British ones, rather boring people who didn’t really have much to say, not that interested me anyway. I was more interested in the Indian characters, who had some energy and life to them.


    • Thanks Kathy. I agree the move should have been much better given that cast…but they could only do so much with the script! I’m a bit surprised that some people rave so much about it as, like you, I thought it was…mildly entertaining rather than fantastic. Sill I would watch Judy Dench was dishes I think – she is a delight on screen 🙂


  6. Sarah says:

    I haven’t read the book or seen the film. The book reminds me a little of Gilian Slovo’s excellent ‘Black Orchid’ so maybe I should give it a go. I saw a trailer for the film at the cinema and it didn’t appeal – every thing looked too stylised and given what has been happening in India at the moment re its attitudes to rape, I’m not sure I’m in the mood for ‘twee India’. The cast look great though – I love Tom Wilkinson.


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