|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.|
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."|
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 role. Which 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.
Final Verdict: Brilliant novel, fair movie, less-than-satisfactory adaptation.