Marwan Hamed: Bringing Arabic Literature to the Big Screen

In News by Hannah Johnson

Egyptian filmmaker Marwan Hamed discusses his successful adaptations of popular novels and his role in promoting Egyptian culture through film.

Egyptian filmmaker Marwan Hamed. Image: Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre

By Hannah Johnson | @HannahSJohnson

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‘Which Story Belongs to Which Screening Venue’
Egyptian filmmaker Marwan Hamed has created a niche for himself by bringing bestselling Arabic novels to the big screen. His adaptations of works like Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Ahmed Mourad’s The Blue Elephant have broken box office records in Egypt.

Hamed’s latest film, Kira & El Gin, is an adaptation of Ahmed Mourad’s novel 1919, which explores Egypt’s resistance against British occupation.

Fittingly, Hamed is a speaker at Abu Dhabi’s International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries (Congress PCI) on April 28. He’ll be joined in a discussion titled Filmmaking Alchemy: The Dynamic Relationship Between Literature and Film Adaptations by Egyptian actor Karim Abdel Aziz and Egyptian screenwriter Ahmed Mourad.

Publishing Perspectives interviewed Hamed ahead of the congress to learn more about this approach to literary adaptation and filmmaking.

‘The Most Important Thing Is the Story’

Publishing Perspectives: Several of your most successful and acclaimed films like The Yacoubian Building, The Blue Elephant, and Kira & El Gin have been adaptations of popular Arabic novels. What draws you to adapting literary works for the screen?

Film poster, ‘The Yacoubian Building’

Marwan Hamed: I’ve been very attached to literature since I was a young boy. I read all the works of Roald Dahl, and my relationship with literature has since moved on to international and Arab literature.

During my studies in film school, I fell in love with the works of the great Naguib Mahfouz and Youssef Idrees. I adapted three of Youssef Idrees’ short stories into short films. Every novel that I’ve worked on has triggered my imagination and emotions, creating a strong drive to turn it into a film.

Publishing Perspectives: What unique challenges does adapting a novel present compared to an original screenplay? How do you approach being faithful to the source material while also making it cinematic?

Marwan Hamed: The first question I ask myself is, “Why am I adapting this novel to screen? What is my vision for it?” In the end, any adaptation represents the filmmaker’s vision of the novel, which is why it’s very common to see many adaptions of the same novel or play. Shakespeare and Dickens are great examples.

Film poster, ‘The Blue Elephant’

When I ask myself the right questions, hopefully I’ll reach the right answers and, in a lot of cases, I trust my intuition.

One of the biggest challenges is duration. Usually a 500-page novel will become a 120-page script because sometimes one image can have the impact of a page. Film is another medium. It’s a visual medium, and what makes the film reach a global audience is that we all understand the same visuals.

With literature, the medium of expression is the language, so the screenplay and adaptation is a huge process. It’s transforming words into images and, at the same time, adapting the novel into a more cinematic structure and genre.

Publishing Perspectives: Your films have brought increased international attention to contemporary Egyptian literature and storytelling. How important is it for you to use your films as a vehicle to promote Egyptian culture and stories across the Arab world and internationally?

Film poster, ‘Kira & El Gin’

Marwan Hamed: I’m very happy to hear that … I’m very attached to Egyptian culture, and I find it fascinating. I’ve learned a lot about the world from literature and film. For example, Italian, Japanese, and Korean cinema has taught us a lot about their culture, and this is the beauty of art in general. It would be great if I can do the same, so people can come closer to each other.

Publishing Perspectives: Many consider you film adaptation Alaa Al Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building to be a landmark film that helped put contemporary Egyptian/Arabic cinema on the map internationally. How did the success of that adaptation impact your career trajectory?

Marwan Hamed: The Yacoubian Building was one of the greatest experiences I had, and indeed it was a turning point in my life. During that film, I had the opportunity to work with great artists and actors like Adel Imam, Nour El Sherif, and Yosra.

Most importantly, this is the only film I directed based on a screenplay written by my father, Wahid Hamed. Here I have to say that I learned a lot from him on how to deal with an adaptation.

Publishing Perspectives: What considerations go into your decision to adapt a particular novel? Are there particular genres or storytelling elements you look for, and have you seen audience tastes change in recent years?

Marwan Hamed: When you watch a film, the most important thing is the story. That would be my first question: “Do I like the story? Does it trigger my emotions and imagination?”

I believe that in today’s world, there’s room for all tastes to exist, especially with the [current] diversity in viewing platforms and movie theaters. It’s a question of which story belongs to which screening venue.

More About Congress PCI

Amazon Alexa’s Rafid Fatani talks with author Mo Gawdat in an ‘artificial intelligence’ debate at the 2023 Abu Dhabi International Congress of Publishing and Creative Industries. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Now in its third year, the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries is organized by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre and takes place the day before the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair opens. Organizers say they aim to continue expanding this conference event into “a knowledge-sharing hub for regional and global publishing and creative content developers in the Arab market.”

In addition to a full day of professional discussions, the program includes workshops and masterclasses for creative professionals and students, as well as an exhibition of technology and creative companies working in the Arab world and internationally.

Follow Publishing Perspectives for more coverage of this year’s Congress PCI.


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Abu Dhabi International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries is here, more on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here, more from us on book fairs and trade shows in world publishing is here, and more on Arabic in the publishing world is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, another program produced by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre.

About the Author

Hannah Johnson

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Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.