Friday, 22 June 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen *Book spoilers alert*

Ok, I saw Salmon Fishing in the Yemen quite a while ago with my friend, but I thought I'd wait until I'd read the book before I posted anything cause I thought it'd be good to make a comparison. And boy are they different in the end!

I'll start with how I felt about the film, as a film, not knowing anything about the book:

Story - A middle-aged fisheries scientist is roped into a crazy scheme entirely funded by a Yemini Sheikh to export salmon fishing to Wadi Aleyn in Yemen. Involved is the Sheikh's representative, Harriet, and a publicity-hunting MP.

The cast: 
Ewen McGregor was the right sort of age for a grouchy middle-aged man, and there's something quite comical about a thick scottish accent saying how much salmon need fresh water.
The way he plays a character whose emotions and beliefs shift so gradually in the film and book from those of a bored, lost soul, to one who has found love and belief in the impossible project is warm and subtle and human.

Emily Blunt, though marginally typecast as a business associate (she is almost wearing the same things as Emily in The Devil Wears Prada) plays a good romantically inclined but clear-headed business woman and organiser.

Amr Waked plays an almost mystical Sheikh, with a great deal of wisdom and almost ethereal understanding of the world.

Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic as a civil servant who's main goal in life is simply to provide good media coverage for the government and the relationship of the UK with the Middle East. She's sharp, witty and even looks the part in her skirt suit and strange moussed back hair.


The film was funny, emotional and carried the theme of faith and belief very well. Its settings were perfectly chosen, from the rurals of Yemen to the great Scottish country house at Glen Tulloch.

It is a romantic comedy, mapping the emotional journeys of middle-aged Fred, whose marriage is loveless, and of Harriet, who is waiting for the return of her newly deployed soldier boyfriend. As they are separated from their loved ones, with spanners thrown into each's relationships, they grow close, finding solace in their shared project and shared emotions.

It's a good film and romcom, and I'd recommend seeing. I'd give it 3-4 stars.

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Now, the book on the other hand, well. I'm wondering whether to go with a step-by-step comparison of the themes and events or whether to just outline what is different and then give my overall impression.

Fred's character: Naturally, the film could not provide much background. From reading we learn that Fred has just started writing a diary, because he is upset and emotionally unfulfilled in his marriage, as well as being pestered into taking part in a ridiculous project that he believes is utterly undo-able.  As the book goes on we learn about how he met and married his wife - she's pro-active, career-driven, emotionally-distant and even suggested he propose in the first place! He is quite passive and unsure of what he wants to do with his life, though he does despair a little at his wife's inability to even discuss children or think past what she deems to be most important in life: how much they earn and how financially stable they are.

In the film, Fred's wife is barely touched, though we do see that their marriage is on the rocks and pretty lacking passion or romance. She's also obviously pretty independent from him. In the book however, I'm afraid that the more I read emails from her or Fred's memories of her, the more I thought, "what a complete bitch!". They were just not well suited at all.

As the story progresses and his wife goes to Geneva for six months to work, we see the style of Fred's writing change. It's less formal, perhaps even less analytical. It's simply his thoughts and feelings. He is more emotionally involved in his writing, and it's quite clear that he cares about the people involved in the project, and has been touched by the Sheikh's philosophy in life.

Harriet: In the film, she has just met Robert, and is quite clearly swept head over heels by him. She promises to wait for him when he is deployed. In the book, she is engaged to him and planning a romantic holiday with him when he suddenly calls from Holland or somewhere, saying that he'd received a call and been packed off to Iraq! Quite the difference. In the film I think the fact that she has just met him when he is called away makes it easier to explain her gradual emotional un-attachment (Rom Com storyline) - something that is also more relate-able to people who start seeing soldiers, wait for them, and then realise how little they knew of them when/if they get back.
She writes to him and tells him what we can guess but don't otherwise *know* about her feelings towards Fred in the beginning - he's a bit of a boor, but he grows on her. However, in the book, NOT to the extent that he does in the film. In the book, she remains true to Robert, but unfortunately grief and uncertainty result in an emotional breakdown, and she loses all faith in life and perhaps even the project, shutting herself off from people involved.

The Sheikh: It is hard not to like the Sheikh, though we are seeing him entirely through Fred and Harriet's eyes. He's calm and polite and very wise. He is a holy figure, of sorts, as he talks about faith and belief and how one must have belief in order to have hope in order to have love. He does not necessarily talk of theist belief, but simply belief in something. He manages to call Fred a man of faith because he fishes even though he can not be sure that he will catch a fish. He believes that he could, hopes he will and loves the sport.
The Sheikh's belief rewards him with God, Fred's with a fish. I thought this was incredibly interesting and not a very down-your-throat interpretation. As an atheist, I have nothing against faith or belief, and think it is nice to have it. It's just religious dogma and institutionalisation that I hate.
His fate in the film does not match his fate in the book, I am afraid.

Peter Maxwell: Well, in the book he is just one odious character, whose job is to make sure that the Prime Minister is kept looking good. Somehow, in the film, his character is split into two - which is very unusual! Book characters get merged into one film character all the time, but I can't think of any others that are split. In the film, he is Kristin Scott Thomas's character, and another smaller character who's the useless twerp, perhaps (though I can't remember) even referred to as P. Maxwell.
He is quite clearly a satirical parody of an idiotic, short-sighted civil servant who's constantly trying to second guess the public. He also seems to think that the sun shines out of the Prime Minister (Jay Vent)'s backside. As the government's political alignment is never specified, the reader can picture them as any politician stereotype they like, though personally I think they're a mishmash of Tony Blair's New Labour and Cameron's Conservatives. Blair's good publicists with Cameron's cabinet incompetence.
But enough of politics...

Faith and religion are handled beautifully by Paul Torday, prompting questions and thoughts from the reader. For example, the contrast between the unquestioned and undeniable faith of those living in the Middle East and the way the majority of England seem to have "moved beyond Church", not even going once a week to worship.

The plot is narrated through letters, emails, diary entries and interviews, all provided as evidence for an inquiry into the disaster that occurred at the launch of the Wadi Aleyn Salmon run.

The emails between the Al Qu'ida members, as sinister and dangerous as they were intended to be, made me laugh. I couldn't help it. Perhaps it's because I don't believe in the twaddle they do, or perhaps it was intended that way, but I found the religious justification for assassinating the Sheikh and the angry, barbaric discussion of what to do with a failed assassin attempter funny.


As far as the ending goes, I am not sure that I am completely satisfied with the way the deaths were handled. Perhaps the film is better in that as a comedy book, the ending in the film fits better with its genre, whilst the book ending of Salmon Fishing does not, in my mind.

The book also gets 4/5.

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