April 10, 2012

Defying common sense, logic and nature: How ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ compares from book to film

What I love most about writing this blog is that it drives me to read books that I would ordinarily overlook.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen would have never piqued my interest. Without the release of its film adaption, fronted by the equally magnificent Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, I doubt that its oddly descriptive title would have induced me to pick up a paperback, let alone read its blurb.

If, by some curious circumstance, I did end up with a copy of Paul Torday’s unassuming little novel in my hand, I think the blurb would have turned me off. Even now – having read the book and loved it – the back cover description is deceptively dull:

“When he is asked to become involved in a project to create a salmon river in the highlands of the Yemen, fisheries scientist Dr Alfred Jones rejects the idea as absurd. But the proposal catches the eye of several senior British politicians. And so Fred finds himself forced to set aside his research and instead figure out how to fly ten thousand salmon to a desert country – and persuade them to swim there…”

A middle-aged male scientist. Fly fishing. British politics. The Middle East. Snore.

Even though I have a harbored a great admiration for Ewan McGregor since he twirled around a bedazzled Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge, and have enjoyed every one of Emily Blunt’s cinematic outings, the trailer for this film adaptation also failed to raise even a flutter of interest.

And yet, I am beginning to consider myself a committed blogger. I want this humble little site to someday develop into a resource for anyone who is interested in discussing film adaptations or debating deviations in plot – whether they hold particular personal interest for me or not.

So I did pick up the book, and I did read the blurb. I even handed over $24.95 at the counter and took it home to read. And boy I’m glad that I did.

The book is very cleverly done. From the very first page it sets off at a cracking pace. Constructed through a series of documents – emails, letters, inter-office memos, memoir extracts, interview transcripts, daily diaries and newspaper articles – each element of the story is clearly presented in a format that is ideal for its facts to gradually leak, and for the motivations of its characters to strategically unravel.

It is a refreshingly original read that turned out to be about so much more than salmon fishing… The salmon is only the vehicle, the catalyst for a much broader tale. Is it a love story? Is it a mystery? Is it a political satire? Once you realise that the characters’ desire to see “shining fish running in the storm waters of a desert land” is only the beginning, you will turn each page with an eager determination to find out what the point of the whole thing actually is.

When the scriptwriters reached the end of the novel, they must have been disappointed – or least thought that it wouldn’t translate well on the big screen – because the inherent message, the meaning, the crux of the story is so very different in the film adaptation.

It begins with Ewan McGregor’s Alfred Jones, who is endearingly funny and charming. Unlike the Harriet Chetwode-Talbot of the novel, Emily Blunt’s character is taken-in by his eccentricities and smiles. Even Alfred’s fiercely independent wife Mary is a little more human.

The British Prime Minister’s pompous director of communications, Peter Maxwell, has his scarlet silk lined suits substituted for “Patricia Maxwell’s” matronly aprons, power suits and heels. At first I lamented this obvious effort towards political correctness, but Kristin Scott Thomas endears the viewer very quickly. She is delightfully oblivious to her own absurdity, and makes some welcome waves in an otherwise smooth stream.

There are so many changes between the novel and the film, both in plot as well as in purpose, but to list them would be to give away too much of each. What I will say is that where the novel opted for conspiracy the film introduced beautiful Scottish scenery... Where the novel had severity, the film injected human feeling… Where the novel sought shock value, the film aimed to meet your every hope and expectation.

Of course Hollywood had to ramp up the love story, but I didn’t expect that it would be at the loss of ALL of the novel’s political implications. Nevertheless, the film is artful, touching and beautiful. As my brain ticked off each change by the scriptwriters, I unerringly agreed with the value of each – they added to the creation of a film that viewers can invest in completely. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable film that will leave the cinema with you.

I hope this blog encourages you to read and watch outside of your ordinary, just as it has done for me.

The verdict:
Book or Big Screen? Book
The film is: 4. A fine adaptation that maintains the original’s exceptional qualities


  1. I'm hoping to see this film sometime this week -- I just finished the book myself Sunday and posted about it yesterday -- the book was very much outside my reading norm, but there was a lot a that I liked about it. Very curious to see for myself how it is translated to the screen.

    1. Hi Ruth. I enjoyed your review very much.. I particularly liked what you said about Torday's ability to craft realistic characters - and how you wanted more of them, and less social commentary. I think the filmmakers shared your perspective - the film provides much more of a character study, and is much more satisfying in this way. I'd love it if you could stop by again and let me know how you think the film compares to the book, when you get the chance to see it.

  2. Great review! I haven't read the book, but now I want to. And I'm glad that it's about more than salmon fishing. :)

  3. Hi Jessica, thanks for stopping by. I've been meaning to thank you - 'A Booklover's Diary' has become so helpful for me with writing this blog. Your 'Friday Links' are often giving me ideas for posts, and your monthly run-down of the adaptations that are being released really keeps me on track. Thanks so much.