Q and A, by Vikas Swarup

qnaThis is, of course, the book upon which the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire is based.  It’s best to say “loosely based,” and I’m glad I was warned beforehand that there are only the most basic similarities between book and movie.  I loved the movie, and if I’d picked up the book expecting to read the same story, I’d have been very disappointed.  As it was, knowing how different the two stories were, I enjoyed both a lot. But it’s important to be forewarned, whichever one you start with.

Both the book and the movie are the story of a young man from the slums of Mumbai who wins the top prize on a popular “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”-style Indian TV quiz show.  In both cases, the boy is uneducated and can answer the quiz questions only because, by bizarre coincidence, luck or fate, every question he gets relates to something that he has seen, heard, or experienced in his impoverished but eventful young life. His life story unfolds in flashbacks as he answers each question.

Those are the similarities.  The differences are — well, everything else.  Ram Mohammed Thomas, the protagonist of Q&A, is not the same character as the young man in Slumdog Millionaire, though he’s just as appealing and likable an underdog.  And his life experiences are not the same at all.  There are two points of similarity — both boys end up at one point as part of a crime ring that takes in orphans only to blind and maim them to serve as beggars, and both do a stint as unofficial tour guides at the Taj Mahal.  Everything else — plot, secondary characters, even motivation for getting on the quiz show — is different.

The story in the novel is more complex, as it doesn’t unfold in a linear fashion (the movie stretched credibility even further than the book did, asking the viewer to believe not only that every quiz question somehow related to the contestant’s life experience, but that they all came up in chronological order).  I often had to scramble to remember what happened before or after the incident I was reading about, but in some ways it made for a more interesting story.  The novel also has a larger and richer cast of secondary characters than the book does.  I would highly recommend this novel to anyone, but if you’ve seen the movie and liked it, be aware that this is a very different story told within the same general outline — though it does have the same hopeful, life-affirming message that suggests a fairytale ending is possible even in tragic circumstances.

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