Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I featured The Reluctant Fundamentalist film a few weeks ago as one of my “Movies for Readers.”  At the time, I mentioned that I had not read the book upon which the film is based but that I intended soon to do something about that so that I could compare the two.  As it turns out there is a huge plot variation in the movie that almost exemplifies the stereotypical relationship between books and the movies that Hollywood turns them into. 

Both the novel and movie versions of The Reluctant Fundamentalist focus on a central character, a Pakistani by the name of Changez, as the man tells his life story to an American while the pair sits together at a table inside a Lahore cafĂ©.  Changez tells the stranger about his education at a prestigious American university, and how that education resulted in a New York City job that was coveted by all of his fellow graduating-students. 

Just as he had risen to the top of his graduating class, Changez did the same in his new job at Underwood Samson, a company considered by those in the know to be the best “valuation firm” in the business.  His future seemed to be unlimited – at least, that is, until 9-11.  After the murders of 9-11, Changez experienced the same backlash felt by so many other Muslim ex-pats living in the West. Almost overnight, Changez and those who looked like him were viewed with a combination of suspicion and spite.  It did not matter who they were, where they went to school, or where they worked; they were dark-skinned Muslims and that was enough to make them easy targets on the streets of the city.

Even Changez’s Underwood Samson colleagues treated him differently than they had before the 9-11 murders occurred.  Changez understood exactly what was happening to him, and even though he understood why it was happening, he resented it.  And when he decided to grow a beard as a symbolic expression of the anger and resentment he felt, Changez found the perfect look and image to place an even larger target on his own back.  So now the two men sit in Lahore, Pakistan, and it seems that neither of them is particularly happy to be there.  Changez seems to know a lot about the American and what he must be thinking, but the man hardly speaks or much acknowledges the observations with which Changez continuously challenges him.

Keep in mind that this 184-page novel is one long monologue that does not end even at the end of the book when Changez, near midnight, is walking the American to his hotel.  Everything the American feels or says is delivered to the reader only in the reflection of what Changez says in response to what he sees and hears from the man.  

The movie, on the other hand, uses multiple flashbacks to help Changez tell his story and to show a kidnapping that happened in Lahore a day or two earlier.  The movie makes very clear why these two men are uneasily sharing a table – something the book is much less clear about.  It is easy to see that the novel serves as the skeleton around which the movie is built, but it is also easy to understand why the film scriptwriter needed to make some major editions to the novel’s plot in order to transform it into a film that viewers would pay to see. 

Bottom Line: This is one of those relatively rare cases where the movie is actually better than the book – but both versions of The Reluctant Fundamentalist can be enjoyed as standalones from each other (I do, however, recommend reading the book before watching the movie).  On a five-star scale, I give the movie four stars and the book three.


  1. Interesting review. I feel certain that I read this one, but I can't remember it at all now. People love to say the book was always better, but I can think of quite a few times when this was not so. I usually argue that mediocre books, three star ones, make the best movies.

  2. You''re probably right about 3-star books. If they have strong characters and a solid basic plot, a good screenwriter can turn them into fine movies. That's what happened here...the big climactic scene in the movie was never even hinted at in the book - and the American character was simplified so that there could be no doubt that he was CIA.