September 2019

A Novel's Journey to the Screen
September 2019

Meena, the first Sinhala novel.

Storytelling has always had a visual element in Sri Lanka, be it through dance and folk theatre, and, since the 20th century, through film and television. For decades, many novels have been beautifully and expressively brought to life through film and teledramas. Readers and spectators have a love-hate relationship with the screen adaptations of their favorite novel. Either the retelling exceeds their expectations, or it does not meet their expectations at all.

Words: Roomini Wijayarathne.

Sri Lanka has an illustrious literary history, marking its beginnings with the first novel published: Meena by A Saiman De Silva in 1905. Since, celebrated novels have been adapted into the screen, much to the acclaim of critics and spectators alike. They have been read and re-read as books, and watched and loved as films or television series.

Kele Handa
Such was the first film adaptation of a novel in Sri Lanka. Kele Handa, the 1933 book by W A Silva was cast onto the silver screen in 1953 by B A W Jayamanne, one of the first film directors in Sri Lanka. The script was based on a story that was widely loved, which presented a challenge in meeting the readers' expectations. Rukmani Devi, famed film star and singer, starred in Kele Handa with Stanley Perera.

Gam Peraliya
Gam Peraliya (1944) was a pivotal novel that was adapted to cinema and television. Martin Wickremasinghe wrote Gam Peraliya at a time when serious themes were not incorporated into fiction. Just as the novel received acclaim, the film, directed by Lester James Peiris, gained popularity and critical appreciation for its reflection of the social transformation and human relationships within the urban gentility. The film adaptation in 1963 was revolutionary as the novel did not possess the typical features that attracted audiences of the times. In 1988, Bertram Nihal brought Gam Peraliya to the small screen, creating a serialized weekly drama. The task was challenging as it had two precedent versions of the same story. Nevertheless, the teledrama also gained popularity with the seasoned cast, and script by Tissa Abeysekara.

In 1956 Martin Wickremasinghe authored Viragaya, a ground-breaking novel of significant themes and sophisticated technique. Being a literary marvel, it posed a tough challenge to the film director. Tissa Abyesekara who directed the film adaptation in 1987, made history in the Sri Lankan cinema, as Viragaya was the first Sri Lankan feature film to carry psychological themes. It cinematized the inner workings of the mind of a character, a complex concept to portray on screen.

Gahanu Lamayi
The debut direction of Sumitra Pieris, a pioneering female filmmaker, was Gahanu Lamayi (1978). It was adapted from Karunasena Jayalath's novel of the same name published in 1966. A love story across classes, it explored the nuances of upward social mobility. Chathura Jayathilake in 2009 wove the story into a teledrama.

Ganga Addara
Ganga Addara (1962) by Leticia Botheju was celebrated in Sinhala literature as a romance novel that received love from many readers. The mentally incapacitated heroine, the noble-minded hero and the tragic end of the story provided cinematic moments in the book, and Sumitra Pieris transferred them into the screen in 1980. Wasanthi Chathurani and Vijaya Kumarathunge in the lead roles hypnotized audiences with convincing acting, and they whole-heartedly accepted the film version. Ganga Addara was cast into a teledrama by Saranga Mendis in 2010, and it gained popularity along with the new rendition of the unforgettable theme song.

The first teledrama from a novel happened 30 years after the first film adaptation. A story with a unique origin, Yashorawaya was written by Somaweera Senanayake in 1978 as the thesis for his Master's Degree. In 1986, Parakrama Niriella directed the adaptation. A veteran cast with Iranganie Serasinghe, Lucky Dias and G W Surendra made it a masterpiece produced by Sandhya Mendis.

Amba yahaluwo
An iconic work of children's literature written by T B Ilangaratne in 1957, it is a coming of age story of two best friends impeded by social classes. Nimal and Sunil charmed audiences in the book and in the teledrama by Sudath Devapriya (1988). It is a marker of the revitalizing nature of adaptation as it transforms the written word into a captivating audio-visual form.

Thus these celebrated novels and their screen adaptations have made history. Readers and viewers in Sri Lanka have enjoyed these unique creations and cherished their significance in our culture.