Books·How I Wrote It

How Shyam Selvadurai turned his bestselling novel Funny Boy into a film

The Toronto-based novelist and talks about collaborating to write the screenplay for the film adaptation of his 1994 novel Funny Boy.

Funny Boy is available now to stream on CBC Gem

Funny Boy is a coming-of-age novel by Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai. (Kevin Kelly, McClelland & Stewart)

Shyam Selvadurai is a Toronto-based novelist who has published work in many countries and whose writing has been translated into eight different languages. 

The Sri Lankan-Canadian Selvadurai is the award-winning author of Funny Boy, the dramatic 1994 novel set in the 1980s that has been adapted to screen by Indian Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta. 

Shot on location in Sri Lanka, the film revolves around the coming of age of Arjie Chelvaratnam, a young Tamil boy who is coming to terms with his homosexuality against the backdrop of the increased tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese people before the breakout of the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Funny Boy stars Arush Nand as Arjie in childhood and Brandon Ingram as Arjie in his teenage years.

Selvadurai was involved in the adaptation, and collaborated with Mehta to write several screenplay drafts for the film. Selvadurai spoke to CBC Books about what it was like adapting Funny Boy to screen.

Funny Boy is available now exclusively on CBC Gem and is Canada's submission to the 2021 Oscars for consideration in the best international film category. You can watch the film on CBC Gem here.

Brandon Ingram (left) plays Arjie and Rehan Mudannayake plays Shehan in Deepa Mehta's Funny Boy. (CBC Films)

From book to screen

"There have been a few attempts at adapting Funny Boy to screen and I actually worked on the first one. But it didn't work because the issue with the novel is that it is episodic. It is a collection of linked stories that are held together by the narrative consciousness of Arjie. 

"And there were other attempts to adapt the novel that placed a heavy focus on the violence that occurs in the book. The novel meant a lot to many people so I wanted to honour that, so I made the decision to 'pull the novel from circulation,' as it were, and put a hold on any attempts to adapt it. I was resigned to the idea of it never being made into a movie. 

There have been a few attempts at adapting Funny Boy to screen and I actually worked on the first one.

"Then a filmmaker friend of mine suggested that I be the one to adapt the film. I am a mid-career writer who was looking for a new challenge so that appealed to me. I read some screenwriting books and screenplays and it was a wonderful process. It was discovering a medium as I was working to adapt my novel that there was an intellectual excitement around that." 

The exciting process of screenwriting

"So I wrote a draft of the screenplay and I really wanted Deepa Mehta to see it. We had worked together on a radio play for one of the stories in Funny Boy in the 1990s. She liked my script but she thought it went a bit too far from the novel and wanted to bring the focus back to Arjie's childhood. We then worked together to write several drafts of a new screenplay.

"I knew going into it that screenwriting was a collaborative process. Mehta had a vision for the film and I agreed with that vision each step of the way. I never had any doubts about her politics or her approach to character. 

"You always hear horror stories about the collaborative process when it comes to screenwriting not being a good one but we were always on the same page. I was writing to match her vision and as a neophyte screenwriter, I needed to trust her and follow her lead. I learned a lot about being a screenwriter as a result. 

I knew going into it that screenwriting was a collaborative process. Mehta had a vision for the film and I agreed with that vision each step of the way.

"For example, about 10 per cent of the novel's dialogue is in the film. I had tried to transpose dialogue form the book into the screenplay but it didn't actually work. The literary dialogue was too "full" and the actor didn't have anywhere to 'play' and all they could do was deliver the line. 

"So adapting the novel was an opportunity to work with a master director and I learned a visual economy with narrative in film that only someone at that level would show me."

Director Deepa Mehta on representation and tokenism

CBC News

7 months ago
Funny Boy director Deepa Mehta explains some of the difficulties and considerations she faced when casting the film. 1:26

The need for inclusion

"We did try to include Tamil representation in the adaptation. It was difficult in that this is a new community. Like all new immigrant communities and in this case, refugee communities, there is a struggle to establish themselves. So there aren't a lot of people from these communities that are able to establish themselves in insecure professions such as the arts. This would happen more in the second or third generations of an immigrant community, so it's not that easy to find them. 

"But for me, Funny Boy isn't a Tamil novel, it's a Sri Lanka novel. I've always been clear about that.

"It's about Sri Lanka and it's about a small group of people living in Colombo from various communities who are from this sort of upper middle class. They share a common culture between them across these ethnicities of a culture that's based on the schools they go to — and also them speaking English as a kind of shared language.

Funny Boy isn't a Tamil novel, it's a Sri Lanka novel. I've always been clear about that.

"The most important thing was to get actors who could accurately and authentically represent that group and milieu. And the actors we got knew how to represent it. It was also very important to get a gay actor who was out and could play the role of Arjie. I think that Brandon Ingram just really brought that kind of authenticity to the role.

"Sometimes we forget, living in the West, that there's still a need for change in terms of LGBTQ rights and representation. And in the 1980s, in places like Sri Lanka, the sodomy laws were still in effect, and there was still a lot of fear and insecurity for LGBTQ people.

"So today in 2020, I think that we must never forget our brothers and sisters in other countries who don't have the freedom we do."

Best of both worlds

"The book and the adaptation are different experiences. It's true to the heart and soul of the novel, but it's different. My favorite adaptation of a novel is Cabaret, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood's novel. Because when you read The Berlin Stories, you get a completely different experience than when you watch Cabaret

The book and the adaptation are different experiences. It's true to the heart and soul of the novel, but it's different.

"My hope, my prayer is that that's what happens when people go from reading Funny Boy  to seeing the adaptation. The experience is very different and they are both inherently rewarding to the reader."

Shyam Selvadurai says he’s honoured by Funny Boy debate

CBC News

7 months ago
Funny Boy author and screenwriter Shyam Selvadurai says he’s not bothered by the passionate debate around the movie — he just wants people to see it. 1:14

A well-rounded writer

"There are things you can do with film that you can't with a novel. I am working on a new novel now and what fiction does really well is the interiority. I now realize how supple writing a novel can be compared to film. 

"There's a consciousness to the novel that, once you have that going, you can pretty much do anything. You can add a semicolon for example, and that can change the course of the novel. Writing for film was a great experience but I really came to value and appreciate the process of writing a novel as well. 

I now realize how supple writing a novel can be compared to film. ​​​​​​

"So returning to writing a novel, I embrace it now in a conscious way that I didn't think about before."

Shyam Selvadurai's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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