Words Matter for Slumdog Millionaire

02/02/09
Writers Vikas Swarup and Simon Beaufoy win the 2009 USC Libraries Scripter Award.
By Bill Dotson
USC Libraries Dean Catherine Quinlan, left, and Jamie Lee Curtis flank Scripter winner Simon Beaufoy.

Photo/Steve Cohn
The writers of Slumdog Millionaire took top honors at the USC Libraries Scripter Award ceremony on Jan. 30. Based on Vikas Swarup’s international bestseller Q&A, the film edged fellow Oscar contenders The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Iron Man, The Reader and Revolutionary Road.

The gala, sponsored by the Friends of the USC Libraries, drew a crowd of more than 300 to USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. Award-winning actress and children’s author Jamie Lee Curtis served as emcee for the evening as the literary, film and academic communities gathered to honor the winning writers.

Catherine Quinlan, dean of the USC Libraries, described Scripter as an emblem of how the libraries’ diverse collections preserving the wisdom of the past inspire artistic expression and the discovery of new knowledge.

“When you explore the intellectual riches of the library’s collections,” she said, “you discover that we value the beauty of well-chosen words as much as the drama of a fine performance, the elegance of a mathematical proof as much as the precision of a carefully argued philosophy.”

Accepting the award, Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy reflected on the transformative experience of adapting Swarup’s novel. “It changed the way I wrote,” he said, “and it changed my life by bringing me back to India … a country I’d last visited when I was 18.

“There’s nothing like this in Britain to honor the writers,” Beaufoy said. “This event is wonderful because it takes the contributions of screenwriters seriously.”

“So much of the writing in this year’s Scripter-finalist books and films,” Curtis said, “is in one way or another, about words…. The characters of Q&A … (and) … Slumdog Millionaire … fall under the sway of stories, of literature and films … the high romance embodied by … movie stars and the classic creed of the Three Musketeers “all for one and one for all.”

Directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog tells the story of a young man from the Dharavi slums of Mumbai who captivates all of India with his improbable string of correct answers all based on his life experiences on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? A fable set in India during the age of outsourcing and global call centers, Slumdog has so far garnered four Golden Globe awards, 10 Oscar nominations and 11 BAFTA nominations.

Swarup’s novel Q&A, published by Scribner, won South Africa’s Exclusive Books Boeke Prize in 2006. Currently India’s deputy high commissioner to South Africa, Swarup’s second novel, Six Suspects, was published in July.

Beaufoy’s work on Slumdog has earned him a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay, building on a distinguished writing career that includes the 1993 radio play Saddam’s Arms, as well as the screenplays for Cello, This Is Not a Love Song, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Full Monty.

Novelist Michael Chabon won the 2009 Scripter Literary Achievement Award. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Wonder Boys, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh also spoke about the transformative power of writing.

Describing the significance of movies for his creative process, he said, “Movies are a constant source of inspiration for me and my writing … they taught me about storytelling and how people are. World-building … is something I learned firsthand from sitting in a movie theatre.”

Chabon reflected on “the visceral shock” of returning to Doheny Library where he began working on The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to receive the award. He said, “I remember how inspiring the room was for me then. It’s a beautiful space, and it has a great deal of personal meaning.”

Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian presented the award to Chabon. The USC Libraries honored Zaillian a three-time Scripter winner for his work on Awakenings, Schindler’s List and A Civil Action with the inaugural award last year.

Glenn Sonnenberg, president of the Friends of the USC Libraries and a former USC trustee, co-founded the Scripter Award with Marjorie Lord Volk in 1988. Past Scripter winners include the authors and screenwriters of No Country for Old Men, Children of Men, Million Dollar Baby, The Hours, A Beautiful Mind, L.A. Confidential, The English Patient and Schindler’s List.