Kai Bird isn’t the author who’d complain that his book has been adapted into a movie that doesn’t do justice to its source material. Because that movie is Oppenheimer. Christopher Nolan’s biopic of American nuclear physicist J Robert Oppenheimer made over $900 million at the global box office and has been dominating the award season, including the nominations at the upcoming Oscars. (Also Read: Oscar 2024 winners: Predictions for the top accolades at the 96th Academy Awards)
“Let me make it clear that the movie by Nolan is fabulous. It’s a great artistic achievement. And it’s a wonderful adaptation of the book. I can recognise in the dialogues whole sentences and paras taken out of the book. It’s not only an artistically visual experience, but also teaches a lot of history. And it’s accurate. I’m very grateful to Nolan,” Kai told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview at Jaipur Literature Festival. He is the author of the 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer.
Prologue and epilogue
But Kai thinks that there’s great value in those who’ve watched Oppenheimer read his book, only because it offers insight into what happened before Christopher Nolan’s story starts and what transpired after it ends. “It’s very long, but even three hours of movie can’t do what a book can do in 720 pages. There’s nothing in the movie, for instance, about Oppenheimer’s childhood in New York, growing up very privileged. There’s nothing about what Oppenheimer did after the 1954 trial, when he retreated every year to St John Virgin Islands,” he said.
In fact, Kai is amused by the thought that there should be a sequel to Oppenheimer because of how the scientist’s life unravelled after the 1954 trial. “It’s a sad story. He was really humiliated and destroyed in that secret trial. The transcripts of the entire month-long proceedings was leaked to The New York Times. All the private details of his life, his love affairs, his left-wing politics, were released. Everyone in America was left to believe that he’s an untrustworthy man, maybe disloyal, maybe a spy for the Russians. This pained Oppenheimer deeply,” said Kai.
On Nolan’s politics
However, the author doesn’t agree that Nolan’s narrative skirted over the Japanese side of the story. “I understand what Nolan was doing there. The movie, in large part, is from Oppenheimer’s point of view. In fact, large part of the screenplay is in first person. So you’re learning all this history from his perspective. It’s clear in the movie that he’s deeply pained and emotional about the tragedy of the loss of lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But he was never there. He never saw it,” Kai said.
“Nolan has a point of showing a scene of Oppenheimer watching a newsreel and you can see him very disturbed. Likewise, there’s another scene where he’s giving this victory speech and he’s hallucinating that there’s a woman in the audience whose face melts. I think that’s powerful. He’s forcing the viewers to imagine for themselves what happened on-ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that’s much more powerful than showing old news clips of the destroyed cities with no people in it,” Kai added.
Oppenheimer’s holistic personality
Kai also claims that the book paints a more well-rounded picture of Oppenheimer, the man, the scientist, and the personality. “You learn more about his politics. We go on and on about investigating whether Oppenheimer was close to the Communist Party, whether he was pink or he was actually red (laughs). The evidence is complicated. The movie is a good summary of that. But the book dives deeper. In the book, there’s room with words to convey the story with more nuance and complexity,” Kai said.
He argued that the reader would learn more about Oppenheimer’s quest to learn quantum physics, and how naturally it came to him. “He was a very bad experimental physicist, he was bad at math, he was awkward with his hands, but he had instinctive insights about quantum physics, which is very difficult to understand. He could hear the music as such. The film captures some of that, but in the book, you learn more about it,” said Kai.
Yet Kai admits defeat when it comes to how Nolan channels the character’s intensity on screen. And he has actor Cillian Murphy to thank for it as well. “His personality, those bright blue eyes. When I met him, I complimented him that he’s captured Oppenheimer’s voice. He had a very distinctive voice that was very eloquent, each word and syllable clearly pronounced. He spoke very softly, almost in a whisper sometime. His accent is odd – it’s not British, not classic American, it’s sort of East-Coast New York,” Kai said.
Kai believes the combination of Nolan’s treatment and Cillian’s depiction went a long way in presenting Oppenheimer as a “young, wired-up man trying to figure out the world. “Well, you can’t have sound, silence or colour on the page. What Nolan has done is take this book and transform it into something else that is his vision, not mine. It often doesn’t work (laughs). But in this case, it works pretty well,” Kai said.