When it comes to drama, leave it to Ramadan to stiffen the competition between producers, directors and TV channels that try to lure the public with popular actors or sumptuous settings.
This year’s ace, however, is literary novels, as producers turn best-sellers such as Bahaa Taher’s award-winning novel “Sunset Oasis” and Ihsan Abd al-Qudus’ “The Sun Will Never Set” into successful soap operas.
Directed by Kamla Abu Zekry, “Sunset Oasis” is about an Egyptian officer named Mahmoud (played by Khaled al-Nabawy) and his wife Catherine (played by Menna Shalaby), who is passionate about archaeology. Suspected of supporting the Urabi Revolt in 1879, Mahmoud is moved to the Siwa Oasis by the British rulers. Besides the dangers of this post, a severe cultural clash surfaces between the locals and Mahmoud. Catherine, an Irish Catholic, also finds herself outcast from society. Her search for the tomb of Alexander the Great in the oasis hardly helps her case, as archaeological excavations are opposed to religion. The novel, which is the basis of the 30-episode series, received the 2008 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the Arab Booker.
“The Sun Will Never Set,” which stars Mervat Amin, Mohamed Mamdouh, Fathy Abdel Wahab and Ahmed Malek, revolves around an Egyptian family saga. Already made into a film by director Salah Abouseif in 1962, the novel’s characters are a widow, two boys and three girls who are confronted with human and social problems in Cairo in the 1960s. However, the soap opera has updated the time to 2017.
Egyptian cinema has a tradition of using novels by Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf al-Sibai and Qudus in the past. The tradition was revived in the early 2000s, as novels such as “The Yacoubian Building” by novelist Alaa al-Aswany and “The Nile Birds” by novelist Ibrahim Aslan made a comeback.
The 2010s have seen Egypt’s top-selling novels made into popular films. Most of these are suspense, romance and political books. The film “The Blue Elephant,” based on Ahmed Murad's novel of the same name, had remarkable success in 2014. Several novel-based films and TV series were released in 2016, a year that could be named the Golden Year of the Egyptian Novel in Cinema and Drama. “Hebta: The Last Lecture” and “Mawlana,” which are based on two novels of the same name, achieved remarkable success. Meanwhile, “The Dome Celebrations” TV series, which is based on Mahfouz's novel published under the name “Wedding Song,” was also a major success.
But do novels guarantee success for the silver screen?
Tariq al-Shennawi, a professor of art criticism at Cairo University's Higher Institute of Cinema Arts, told Al-Monitor that a great novel does not necessarily generate a great dramatic or cinematic work. “Cinema has different rules based on scenario, directing techniques, acting performance, music and novel adaptation to the cinema audience,” he said.
Shennawi cited examples from the history of Egyptian cinema. “The 'Kit Kat' film, which was based on the novel 'Malek al-Hazin' by Aslan, was successful because director Daoud Abdel Sayed did a good job adapting the novel to the cinema. However, ‘The Nile Birds’ film, where the adaptation was very loyal to the novel, was not much of a success,” he said.
Asked about the reasons behind the success of novel-based films and TV series, Shennawi said that the production was just as important as the script. “The directing, the performance of actors all play a role. ‘The Dome Celebrations’ succeeded as all these factors fell together. The script was well thought out, the director was experienced and the famous and popular stars starred in it — all of this contributed to significant impact on viewers,” he said.
He added that films and TV shows based on novels rekindled the interest of the new generation toward those novels. “The cultural circumstances have changed. People are no longer so fond of reading. In the 1960s and 1970s, the name of a novelist such as Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf al-Sibai and Ihsan Abd al-Qudus was a guarantee that the film based on their work would succeed. I do not think this is the case anymore. Today, people read the novels because of the films, not the other way around.”
Film critic Ramy Abdel Razek told Al-Monitor, “The name of the novel or the novelist is definitely not a guarantee that the production will succeed. But I think that some novels that have achieved remarkable success, especially among young people, such as 'The Blue Elephant' and 'Hebta,' are able to guarantee for filmmakers or TV series producers that the novels’ fans — counting at least several thousand — will watch the production.”
Hussein Hamouda, a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “Translating a novel into a TV series or film widens the audience of the novel and encourages people who do not usually read to read it.”
Mustafa al-Faramawi, the manager of Dar El Shorouk bookstores, had previously told Al-Monitor that sales of “The Blue Elephant” and “Hebta” increased during the screening of the films.
As for “The Dome Celebrations” novel (“Wedding Song”), he said, “During and after the show, the novel was on the best-seller list although its distribution has been low for years. The book is full of symbols and projections. So for the TV series to put it back on the best-seller list is a proof of its success and deep impact.”
Al-Monitor tried to communicate with Faramawi to ask him how the sales of the “Sunset Oasis” novel have been doing with the start of the TV series screening, but he was not available for comment. However, employees at the branches of Dar El Shorouk bookstores in the neighborhoods of Nasr City, Dokki, Zamalek and several shopping centers have confirmed that sales of “Sunset Oasis” rose during the month of Ramadan due to the success of the TV series.