REVIEW: The Black Cat
– By Allan Lear
People who love to read come in many different shades. Some love fantasy; some love true crime. Some enjoy Thomas Harris, some prefer JK Rowling. Some read fiction exclusively; some don’t see the point of reading about anything that isn’t real. Some people like Dan Brown; others aren’t morons.
About the only thing that all readers can agree on is that film adaptations of their favourite books or short stories are invariably bullshit. Perhaps there’s an element of snobbery in this; perhaps readers like to see their chosen hobby as culturally superior, engaging the imaginative faculty as it does in a way that the cinema or telly screen obviates the necessity for by handing you everything on a shiny technicolour plate. If so, that’s a shame, because there is perfectly good art being done in every medium under the stars, from comics to graffiti to fashion (possibly). However, the prejudice against filmic adaptations is unfortunately reinforced by the fact that the vast majority of anecdotal evidence demonstrates it to be absolutely fair.
Everyone who has ever read a book has a bête noir, a book they revel in that the Hollywood system has butchered to pieces. Many despised the way Jurassic Park dumbed down Michael Crichton’s clever use of chaos theory into a standard subFrankensteinian riff on “man shouldn’t do science in case it is badly”. Show me a Tolkein fan who rightly adored Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, and I’ll bet you a fiver that same fan would happily beat Jackson to death with his own Oscars for what the Kiwi idiot did with The Hobbit. A personal bugbear of mine is Spares, a magnificent science fiction novel by Michael Marshall Smith that starts in a clone farm and winds up in a version of the Vietnam War taking place in the Earth’s subconscious. What did Hollywood do with it? The Island, a meditation on how stupid people make stupid movies. Sadly it is impossible to beat Michael Bay to death with his Oscars because the twat has never won any and never will, though I live in hopes that one day he gets caught in an avalanche of his Razzie trophies and is slowly crushed flat.
The Black Cat is a short film based on the short story of the same name by Ruskin Bond, a prolific Indian author and editor of anthologies. Unfortunately I have been unable to track down Mr Bond’s original story, partly owing to his incredible fecundity in all genres, so I am unable to assess whether or not the film is a creditable rendition of his work – though apparently he has given it his seal of approval.
The lead character – “protagonist” is somewhat too strong a term – is Ruskin Bond himself, portrayed as a portly, somewhat older man of letters to whom we are first introduced as he potters effetely around a junk shop in India. He exchanges pleasantries with the owner as he blunders around with no clear aim in mind before settling on an elderly besom to take home and sweep his floors with. Sadly the owner doesn’t produce any “delighted to see you, Mr Bond” quips, which is a missed opportunity for the Western audience. Bond is portrayed by Tom Alter, a white man born and raised in India who, though unknown to me, seems to have been a leading light in the Indian film industry for many years. Sadly Mr Alter has passed away since the filming of The Black Cat, possibly out of confusion.
Ruskin fetches his prize home to his wonderfully-designed house, a once-commodious bungalow* that has become overrun in places by Bond’s mountains of crap. Bond isn’t a hoarder, but he is an author, which means that books, mementoes and curios teeter in piles around the place. Not only is this good character observation of the show-don’t-tell variety, but it also explains why he was in the junk shop in the first place and on good enough terms with the owner that they address each other by their familiar names. Even the books on the shelves are interestingly eclectic, though whether by design or by the simple process of emptying charity shops for whatever they have, I couldn’t say.
Attempting to use his newly-acquired implement for sweeping the floors clean, Mr Bond discovers – appropriately enough – that he has inherited a cat to go with it. The cat is fascinated by the brush and plays constantly with its bristles, making it a sod to do any sweeping with. Ruskin declares that he hates cats and in any event prefers his solitude while writing.
What happens is the tamest rehash of The Cat Came Back that ever there was. The gentleman in that marvellous cartoon tried everything to rid himself of the superfluous feline, eventually resorting to a large pile of dynamite with which he twats the bloody thing into the next lifetime. Does Mr Bond resort to similarly definitive tactics? No. He gives the cat a bowl of milk and tells it to fuck off. This clearly constitutes a mixed message, and no jury would convict the cat if it assumed from this behaviour that it was on for a shag later.
Finally an oddball by the name of Mrs Bellows turns up and the miniature plot resolves itself in the obvious way. A scene of deeply stilted acting and strangely repetitive dialogue later, everything sorts itself out with nothing in the way of consequence or reward for the primary character.
What’s the point? What is the point of any of this? Nothing is resolved or is even detectably in need of resolution. It’s just a sequence of events. If the so-called twist at the end is the point of the story, then it’s too obvious for adults and handled rather too opaquely for children. It’s an Indian film but the dialogue is entirely in English, so maybe the idea is to introduce Bond’s writing to a Western audience, but if so, why is the original story so hard to find? Why not release it on a promotional web page? It’s only a short story, it would be worth it as a loss-leader.
Its purpose lost in translation from page to screen, all you can say about The Black Cat is that it definitely exists. Oh, and someone drew some beautiful pictures for the end credits. Really nice illustrations. Put them in a book, where they will be appreciated.