The aphorism that the book is always better than the picture doesn’t always apply anymore—plenty of films, from Angels and Insects to The Cider House Rules, do live up to, in some cases even surpass, their original sources. Unfortunately, The Namesake is not one of these.
I’d expected a lot more from producer and director Mira Nair; Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala, her previous movies, remain two of my favorites. In this case, however, Nair made some serious errors in her choice of what to include and what to leave out of the filming of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel. She zeroes in on the story of the nuclear family at its center, minimizing their extended family in India as well as the community of Bengali exiles they create in America, giving the movie a claustrophobic atmosphere; more significantly, it eliminated the novel’s rich depictions of Bengali culture, and undermined one of its major themes, the cultural gap between parents and children. What remains is a thinly plotted film in which not much happens for two and a quarter long hours.
Nair attempts to create suspense around the question of how Gogol got his name by keeping it from the viewer until nearly the end. But the father’s survival, thanks to the fluttering pages of the Nikolai Gogol book he’d been reading on the train when it crashed, happens early in the novel, and readers are privy to this information. The author, I’m sure, never meant to hang her story on this thinly disguised plotting device, and the strategy backfires: when Gogol’s father finally does tell him the reason for his name, it doesn’t have much of an impact on him—or, more importantly, on the audience.
Moviegoers are often inspired to read the book after they’ve seen the film, but I’m afraid this movie won’t do the job. So take my advice and skip the film. Just read the book. You’ll thank me.