From Novel to Film, pt. 31: Caravans

Novel (1963) Film (1978)

After 9/11, I remember looking for a book on the Taliban from the library - I forget which, but there was only one or two at the time. But everyone else had the same idea, and I was something like 67th in line. One book that didn't come up - then or any other time Afghanistan has come up in the years since - is James Michener's Caravans

I find this strange. Michener was a hugely popular and successful novelist; moreover, he's known for turning centuries of history and alien culture into accessible and historically accurate drama. That he had given the Michener treatment to a country with which the US suddenly found itself at war seems like it might have been mentioned more. (I'd have appreciated hearing about it at the time, at least.)

Despite having been written in the early 60s and taking place in the Afghanistan of 1946, Caravans describes the country much as it exists today. For one thing, the turmoil of recent decades (the Soviet invasion in the late 70s, the US invasion and ongoing occupation in the early 21st century) has been the normal state of affairs in Afghanistan for centuries. Few countries have been invaded as much or endured as many genocides. Michener, through the mouths and perspectives of a wide array of Englishmen and Afghans and Americans and more, lays out how things developed into the state they are and even makes it sensible in some ways. No easy feat. The religious violence and delicate knife's edge the country's educated elite walked in the years after WW2 is ominous. It is easy to see how the sons and grandsons of the mullahs of the novel became - with the right encouragement - the Taliban of today

Thanks a lot, CIA.

The plot is simple enough. And while the reader learns much about Afghanistan's history, the book doesn't cover more than a few months in the main character's life - none of the sweeping across centuries approach of other Michener novels. It is, though, based on his own direct knowledge of the landscape and people.

Mark Miller is a young American diplomat stationed in Kabul. He's asked to find Ellen Jaspar, a politically connected American girl who married an Afghanistan citizen (Nasrullah) but has now disappeared. Along with his envoy Nur Mohammad - and later Otto Stiglitz, an ex-Nazi doctor living in Kandahar, Miller travels through the countryside - witnessing among many other things three experiences so commonly associated with images of Afghanistan in the West: a ritual stoning, an honor killing, and a game of goat polo - until he gets to Nasrullah, who is building a dam on the edge of the desert.

Nasrullah is evasive when it comes to his wife's whereabouts, but the American eventually discovers she left him to join in with a nomadic chieftain named Zulfiqar, who leads the "Povindahs" (not their preferred term), one of the wandering tribes of Central Asia. Ellen has rejected what she perceives as the plastic-fantastic banality of the West, particularly her hometown of Dorset, PA.
Miller travels with these nomads, falling in love with the chief's daughter Mira, and witnessing the rare confluence of the nomads at Qabar, whose location is unknown to even the US and Soviet intelligence agencies. Zulfiqar exploits the presence of the exotic foreigners in his entourage like a born politician and gets himself elected as leader of all the nationless people, who realize their way of life is coming to an end. 

Stiglitz and Ellen carry on an affair, and soon they are all dispelled from the Povindahs. Ellen attempts to seduce Mark, but soon the authorities arrive and deport her after Nasrullah grants a divorce. Otto, too, is arrested. Nasrullah and Miller are despondent as Ellen is taken away. The last line of the book is delivered by Moheb Khan, the local warlord with whom Miller and all the foreigners must check in wherever they go

"She would have destroyed you both."

If you like Michener, you'll love Caravans. It's not as polished as some of his other works, but it moves along at a great clip, paints some unforgettable pictures (particularly at the Caravanserai of Tongues), and contains his usual blend of sensitivity, keen insight (into both Americans and non-Americans), and remarkable facility for rendering a landscape few Americans will ever know into three familiar dimensions. The work of a younger writer (although he was practically 60 when it was published, I just mean to compare to his later (and less adverb-y) works) but one of his most enjoyable reads - and at a mere 300+ pages, one of his quickest, too.

This quote - from when Miller and the gang reach Balkh and the American broods in the moonlight - is worth reproducing:

"As a boy I had been fascinated by this city, ancient and famous even before the days of Darius. Could this be Balkh, this empty field of arid mounds where herd boys tended goats and wandering Kochis came to camp? This expanse of buried rubble with no plaques, no banners, not even a line of brick indicating where the great libraries had stood... could this be the end of the city? 

I felt inconsolably lonely, as if I were lost in the paralyzing sweep of history, a shard left by time. At Rome the imperial ruins had also depressed me, but only for a moment, because it required no great imagination to believe that something of that grandeur persisted. But in Afghanistan my depression not only affected me but also permeated the land and the culture and the people. It was difficult to believe that civilization had ever graced this arid waste that it would return. At miserable Ghazni, at silent Qasa Bist, at The City, at faceless Bamian and here at Balkh nothing remained. Were the generations indifferent to history, allowing their finest monuments to disappear while Rome retained hers? Or was it simply that Asia was so different, its conquerors so terrible that western man could not visualize their cargoes of horror?

Many times I had crossed the path of Genghis Khan, merely one of the scourges and not necessarily the worst, and each time I had stood where he had erased a population. Perhaps a society cannot absorb such repeated punishments. Perhaps the scourging does something to the minds of men, converting citizens into frightened nomads who feel safe only when carrying their goods with them under their own surveillance. Perhaps it was Genghis Khan who explained why the Kochis and the Kizilbash and the Tajiks remained wanderers with no fixed civilization to sustain them."

I learned many things about Afghanistan from reading Caravans and won't attempt to bulletpoint them here. This tale, though, of Balkh - ancient when Alexander the Great was crisscrossing the Hindu Kush - and some of the other desolate and abandoned places described in the reading really captured my imagination. I'm leaving out far too much.

How is the movie? 

"Caravans features interesting cultural observations, resplendent production values, a romantic musical score, and a solid international cast. Undercutting these strong elements, however, is muddy storytelling. Not only is the nature of the relationship between the characters played by stars Jennifer O’Neill and Anthony Quinn maddeningly vague—are they lovers or merely friends?—but the dynamics coloring interactions between the various sociopolitical factions in the movie are hard to track. Had the filmmakers either gone full-bore in Michener’s epic storytelling style or winnowed the source material down to just the core narrative, Caravans might have been more effective. As is, the movie feels too melodramatic for a depiction of geopolitical strife, and too complicated for a sweeping romance."

So says Every70sfilm in its review of the film, and it's hard for me to argue. Let's start with the cast. Michael Sarrazin plays Miller.

Sorry to choose such a poorly lit picture.

He's perfectly fine. The character's stripped of many of his nuances in the book, but that's not the actor's fault. Ditto for Anthony Quinn as Zulfiqar and Christopher Lee as the Khan. 

Also starring Behrouz Vossoughi as Nasrullah (r).

Anthony Quinn is more or less just reprising his Lawrence of Arabia roleWhich is fine. Christopher Lee is Christopher Lee - i.e. totally at home in this or any role. Vossoughi is fine as Nasrullah, but the character - one of the most sympathetic in the book for me - is completely changed onscreen. He's turned into basically a cuckolded husband willing to kill all of the Povindahs to get his wife back. 

This is undoubtedly the work of Hollywood execs who wanted to make things more black and white.
His first wife's wearing of the chador, for example, is a huge part of Miller's journey. She's barely in the movie, but for some reason - well, probably the obvious reason - they omit the chador.
More drastically, when Ellen refuses to return to Nasrullah - who is some kind of military commander in the film instead of an engineer - he decides to bombard the ruins where she is hiding.
Leading to her death.

So yeah, slight change. Reminds me of whenever they make a Hemingway movie - "Gee, do you think it changes anything if we keep so-and-so alive at the end?" Yeah, maybe a little bit. Other changes:

Otto Stiglitz is removed entirely, as is Miller's Jewishness - kind of an important dynamic in the book - and Nur Mohammad.
The Russians are still there, but since the locale is changed, the Cold War dynamics are undermined.
All other relationships are removed to focus exclusively on a (forced) romance between Ellen and Miller.
Omitting Mira entirely.
The dancer (Khosrow Tabatabai) from the village - a minor character in the novel, though he's part of some big scenes - is turned into the direct villain.

This last change hasn't aged so honorably. The homosexual element of Afghanistan society is treated honestly in Michener's novel. Both the author (presumably) and the main character are somewhat uncomfortable with it, as most straight Americans of the era would be, but the novel doesn't dwell on it or cast aspersions. There's no need to make any gay people the villains, in other words; they are just part of the organic landscape of the story. The movie, though, seems to place both the homosexuality and villainy wholly on the shoulders of this one character and then humiliate him or ascribe the pettiest of motives to him.

Rounding out the cast:

Jennifer O'Neill as Ellen Jasper - her character in the film seems more interested in make-up than in the book.
Starring Afghan Don Johnson as this guy.
and all these guys from Phish tour.

So all these changes alter the substance of the story from the novel. It's an okay enough film - I've certainly seen worse, and its production value is striking. Mainly for the scenery. That brings me to the last change of the film:

"The dynamics coloring interactions between the various sociopolitical factions in the movie are hard to track. The root of this problem, of course, is the choice to set Caravans in a fictional Middle East country, necessitating inoffensive vagueness, even though everything about the setting and the story suggests the region in and around Afghanistan."

I can certainly understand if it was easier to film in Iran than it was in Afghanistan - though this was probably the last Western film to stage an "easy" production in Persia - but why change it to some fictional country? Politics, I'm sure, but it serves Michener's story poorly.

Final Verdict: Brilliant novel, fair movie, less-than-satisfactory adaptation.


  1. (1) "Goat polo" -- and this is something the Taliban banned for being immoral. The things you learn!

    (2) This sounds like a highly enjoyable novel. Man, you really make me want to read some Michener!

    (3) The days are seemingly gone -- mostly gone -- when men like Anthony Quinn and Christopher Lee could be cast as Arabs. And that's probably a good thing, but nevertheless, I feel like it might be depriving us of some good performances from big-deal actors.

    (4) I will never see the name "Behrouz" without hearing Shohreh Aghdashloo yelling it (her son's name) in that one season of "24." BEHHHHHHHROUUUUUUUZ!!!!!

    (5) It does seem odd that the movie would choose to dwell on the homosexual thing, certainly in a villainous context. My perception of this era of Hollywood is that they'd rather have pretended no such thing actually existed, at least if they were aiming the movie at general audiences, which this presumably was. Weird!

    (6) "Starring Afghan Don Johnson as this guy." -- There's your LOL for the day!

    (7) "but why change it to some fictional country? Politics, I'm sure, but it serves Michener's story poorly." -- I'm sure there's a story there. Some producer knew a gay Afghani who he thought might be offended, or some such. You get millions of dollars involved, and strange decisions are made.

    (8) I'd never heard of this novel or movie. Another set of additions to my radar courtesy of Dog Star Omnibus!

    1. (1) Apparently, two things the US-led forces have restored are this goat polo business, and the charming tradition of "boy play." I mean, it's not like we invaded the country for ONLY those two reasons - and it's not like there ain't plenty effed up here in the good ol' usa - but sheesh.

      (2) Whether or not you ever take the plunge I hope you at least enjoy continue to reading about me reading Michener, as I've got a few more posts planned!

      (3) Agreed. On one hand I crack up, because it's like, it's called "acting," ladies and gentlemen... On the other, okay, well sure. But on still another hand, I look at it more like you phrase here: like, if you come up with a reason to deprive Anthony Quinn or Christopher Lee in your movie, you're just doing it wrong, I'm sorry. Same goes for Samuel L. Jackson and Idris Elba in things, I guess. Who cares. Hire the talent, protect the talent, enrich the enterprise, damn the torpedoes.

      (4) I actually tried damn hard to work that into this post! I just couldn't find a YouTube clip of just her saying the name. I really tried, though! I even had a picture of her that I ended up removing because it didn't make much sense without the clip to link to. I'm glad to hear I'm not alone here, though - I suspect we aren't the only ones.

      (5) The blame-the-homo aspect of 60s, 70s, and 80s tv and film is pretty blatant, but it's alongside the gradual lawful coming out and mainstreaming of gay people in America, so I guess that's the upside.

      (6) Excellent!

      (7) Probably. I hope it involves someone owing the Shah a favor and maybe a bag of opium-cash and some Soviet guns running.

      (8) We do what we can in these days before our robot bodies are ready.

    2. (1) I...think I can probably figure out what "boy play" is, more or less. There should be an episode of Star Trek in which Kirk has to stick up goat polo and boy play on grounds of non-interference. Or maybe Archer instead of Kirk.

      (2) For sure!

      (3) I think we'll all be for the better once we've gotten out of our infancy in terms of the modern way we're doing it (which I would not go QUITE so far as to say is bigotry masquerading as diversity, but is close to that in some respects). But performances like Quinn and Lee in this movie -- what I imagine them to be -- is a baby getting tossed out with the bathwater. Well, not that, exactly, but maybe you know what I mean. Anyways, by all means, more and better roles for the Elbas of the world is a good thing, so at least there's that.

      (4) This gratifies me, but does not surprise me. (Aghdashloo is on "The Expanse," by the way, and is pretty great. That voice, though...! My lord. I dig it, but it's like a gravel crusher that can speak.)

    3. (3) Agreed. It'd be interesting to see our era from a future, more-Star-Trek-y vantage point.

      Until then, I guess there's... well, Star Trek, I guess.

      It is funny, though, just broadly speaking. Would I cast Morgan Freeman as Genghis Khan? Acting/performance/screen-presence-wise, hell, I'd cast Shatner. But, I can understand how that'd be alienating to billions of people. Nevertheless, I don't know what the answer is - theatricality and make-believe shouldn't get bogged down in non-theatrical quagmires. I understand and (obviously, I guess) I enjoy wrestling with these issues as much as anyone. I think different eras of acting, too, prepared actors for different things. Actors reared in the sort of Royal Shakespeare tradition were expected to play Moors, Italians, Germans, whatever was called for, and built their reputations on that sort of respectable-command-spectrum. It seems silly to train a capable artist to play everything and then limit their choices.

      These same remarks can be used to support casting a wide variety of people - not just Royal Shakespeare folk - in lots of stuff. I remember a Viola Davis comment about graduating from Juliard and then getting offered nothing but single black mom or black rom-com sort of roles. Nothing against those (she said) but... she was just playing King Lear and got a kiss from the President! What happened!

      Of course now she's the queen of Hollywood and likely does not have this problem. And God bless her - she's awesome.

      (4) She's absolutely baffling in one "Law and Order" episode she's in. She's a great actress in everything else, so I'll blame that one on the director.

    4. Regarding Afghan Don Johnson, too - I love how Michael Sarrazin is doing a head-turn. Not planned by me at all to capture, but there's a built-in "Wait... is that...?" to it. If this is bad form to comment thusly on my own screencap, I apologize.

      If tomorrow Chicago is covered Vesuvius-like and this comment is all that's left to capture an age (somehow) it may seem indulgent.

      This is sort of like the post-it notes I should affix to my conspiracy books.

      Okay now even the footnotes are getting indulgent. This way lies madness.

    5. If it's bad form to make those sorts of comments on one's own screencaps, then I guess I have very bad form; I've done it many times. I think. If I didn't, I intended to and forgot it! Hey, sometimes these things are too delightful to just wait on somebody else to notice 'em.

      "It seems silly to train a capable artist to play everything and then limit their choices." -- Yes indeed. I'd like to think that what's happening in the culture right now is the process of making the profession equitable to ALL actors in that way. It stands to reason that there'd be some speed bumps along that highway. Well, we'll either be a whole lot wiser at the end of the process or we really, REALLY won't be.

      I keep hoping there'll be one more great Shatner role before that particular book closes for good. I'd absolutely be onboard with it being Genghis Khan.

  2. This whole review reminds me of a similar debacle Grahame Greene faced when seeing his "Quiet American" adapted to the screen in the 50s.

    Seems the main character in the book is turned into a straight up villain whereas he's too complex for such a label in the novel. Meanwhile, the title "American" is made into this square-jawed, heroic type. Such were the necessities of the politics back then.

    Thankfully, the Michael Cain adapt got things more or less right.


    1. Been meaning to read that for years. Perhaps 2017 will be the year!

    2. (Narrator voice): But it WASN'T the year...