Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden

I find that The Last King of Scotland makes me wonder again about the relationship between books and their film adaptations. The Last King of Scotland, while a good book, is still vastly inferior to the film version, for many reasons, perhaps not the least of which is the fact that I saw the film before reading the book--though I think that part of the pattern lies in the fact that great films are more likely to inspire people to read the books on which they are based. After all, The Shipping News is an amazing book and one of my favorites, but who would want to read it after seeing the dull Kevin Spacey-Julianne Moore turd they made out of it?

Anyway, The Last King of Scotland is the almost entirely fictitious story of Nicholas Garrigan, a Scottish doctor who travels to Uganda on the eve of Idi Amin's successful coup to work for its National Ministry of Health, and through sheer accident (Amin is involved in a car-cow collision near the bush town where Garrigan practices) becomes Amin's personal physician. But Amin, it turns out, is a psychopath, and Garrigan is unwittingly drawn into his closest circle and finds himself unable to extricate himself from an increasingly violent Uganda. The title, The Last King of Scotland, refers to Amin's real-life idiosyncrasy of styling himself "The Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular," and his affinity for the Scots as an "oppressed people."

The film wisely noted that Amin is the most interesting character in this story; though it is about Garrigan, it's Amin's colorful insanity that really makes the story worthwhile. The relationship between Garrigan and Amin is the focus of the film, but the book is burdened by its opening third, which describes Garrigan's experience as a doctor in the bushland, and its final chapters, in which Garrigan inadvertantly finds himself among a Tanzanian company invading Uganda. For someone whose presence overshadows the entire novel, Amin is present very little. The rest of the characters are largely insignificant.

All in all, this is a better book than High Fidelity or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or Children of Men, all of which are nearly made irrelevant by their film adaptations. In this case, at least, it forms a good companion to the film, though not quite measuring up to it. Case in point: the film has a scene where James McAvoy is pierced by hooks through his nipples.

1 comment:

Carlton said...

The film was great. I just watched it last week. I don't think I am going to read the book.