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What a coincidence that The Castro Theater will be showing Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). I have started the novel three days ago and it has given my creep. Jack Torrance takes up the job to be the winter caretaker of The Overlook, a splendid hotel tugged away in the remote Colorado mountain. Jack, his wife Wendy, and the clairvoyant 5-year-old Danny move into the Overlook. The hotel has a personality in its own right, and acts as a psychic lens: it manipulates the living and the dead for its own purposes; and it magnifies the psychic powers of any living people who reside there and makes them more sensitive to its urgings. Danny has premonitions of the hotel’s danger to his family and begins seeing ghosts and frightening visions from the hotel’s past, but puts up with them in the hope that they are not dangerous in the present. This is the type of book meant to be read under the sheet with a flashlight. But I can also see myself reading it at night by the pool in Palm Springs. The movie, which seems to be a capacious spooker, is something to looking forward to.

19/30 Day Book Meme: Favorite Film Adaptation

Day 19: Favorite book turned into a movie

Movie tie-in is not always my cup of tea. I recognize that there are some things in a novel that just can’t be adapted for the screen: the long stream-of-consciousness narrative, contemplation, and motives. Directors might throw some hints through an enunciated flashback. After all, no movie will ever live up to the power of imagination because allure and association are purely subjective, no matter how costly the special effect that is put into the making of the film. My impression, fashioned by experience, contemplation, and introspection, will always be a little damp with emotion, which in turn contributes to a preoccupied vision of what the film should be. That all said, one movie made an indelible impression in me.

I remembered walking into the cinema with little expectation of The Remains of the Day which is based on the novel with the same title by Kazuo Ishiguro. Books and films are completely different in their artistic imaginations. In books, readers can construct the world of the characters from the authors’ words, fill the gap for what’s not said, and speculate from between the lines. So it becomes very subjective, a matter of one’s own interpretation. The film is a manifestation of the story in the director’s perception. So different nuances can be exuded through the appearance of the cast, the scores, and the screenplay, which most of the time would have taken exact words or dialogues from the book, but the context becomes inevitably different. In this case, the film is a very faithful and fair portrayal of the book. There are fine points and nuances in the story that I have to refresh myself to see the film starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, who both deliver a stellar performance. I have a penchant for literature set in early 20th century, and Ishiguro’s ponderous and perceptive writing is always a comfort. Seeping through beautiful and quiet prose is a profoundly compelling portrait of a first-rank English butler who is an effective, dedicated, but also a repressed servant. At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive during which he looks back and reflects upon his career to reassure himself that, by abiding to principle and dignity, he has served humanity.


Musing Mondays2

Do you like movies made from books? Which ones do you think have been done well—kept mostly to the plot of the book, etc?

I like movie tie-in but have mixed feelings about them because I am usually preoccupied with my visions of the book, especially the ones I love. While the potential can be auspicious, it’s not clear that a book that’s a favorite with readers will prove equally successful at the box office. For the readers at least, who have individually developed pre-conceived ideas of what the characters might appear, how they carry themselves and interact with one another—the very private interpretation of the books, is hard to beat when the film is a product of director and screenwriter’s interpretation. In other words, they cannot satisfy everyone’s fantasy.

Maybe the film companies take advantage of the established publicity of the book. But, again, this goes back to the point I made about how readers become attached to books in a certain way. This could be a difficulty that neither filmmaker nor actors can overcome. How can an actor fulfill every expectation of the individual readers and fit into their vision? As for me, the issue is so much simpler. If I don’t give two straw about a book, there might be a better chance that I would see the movie because I won’t bother with the book. For my favorite books, I proceed with fear and trembling! That said, some of the well-done films include The Remains of the Day, Brideshead Revisited, and 84 Charring Cross Road.

Not at the Theater

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And–the reverse of last week’s question. Name one book that you hope never, ever, ever gets made into a movie (no matter how good that movie might be).

I have mixed feelings about the desire to see a favorite novel made into a film and the fear that a half-hearted or cheaply made film would ruin the book. I have read The Master and Margarita five times, and I am sure that I will read it again. My only regret was that my Russian is not good enough to understand the novel. Three out of five times I read the same translation by professor Diane Burgin and the rest two different translations. A quick poll at the local Russian grocery market revealed that almost all the Russians have either read or known about the story. I know for sure that even the best translation can not compare to the original because cultural nuances are inevitably lost during translation. The book has nonetheless made a deep impression me. Every time I re-read, I found something new in the book—a different connotation, a refreshed interpretation; it would turn to me by different facets. The novel itself, in both forms and plot, is incredibly beautiful, deep, sophisticated yet playful and sparkling with unforgettable characters, not to mention it’s audaciously ahead of its time. Supernatural elements will render an adaptation challenging despite the advent of technology and special effects in the film industry.

That said, there is in fact an adaptation in 2005. Vladimir Bortko has become the first Russian film director to start shooting of renowned Bulgakov’s novel and not to stop half-way. All the others Russian directors once engaged in the production of Master and Margarita have actually turned out to be unable to finalize their projects. I had a lot of doubts before watching the film because as much as I wanted to see Bulgakov’s masterpiece, which fuses three plots into one, on the screen I was not sure that it was possible to adapt it and not to lose anything important—which is everything. Bulgakov gradually weaves the three scenarios together, all the while exercising devilish lampoonery and wit to satirize Soviet life under Stalin. How would the film achieve the same? I was nervous and antsy while watching the familiar story unveiling across the screen. Bortko’s adaptation is actually not bad at all. It is respectful, thoughtful and as close to the spirit of the greatest Russian novel of the last century as possible. Even I have enjoyed it, I still don’t expect to see another adaptation because I’m just too fearful!

Film Proposals?

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If you could see one book turned into the perfect movie–one that would capture everything you love, the characters, the look, the feel, the story—what book would you choose?

I’m big fan of films adopted from novels with quiet majesty. I would always welcome a film that emulates the style of The Remains of the Day, based on the novel of the same title by Kazuo Ishiguro. This type of question always sets up for a spur-of-the-moment answer. At this moment, I would like to see the 40-year-old friendship between the Morgans and the Langs in Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner transcribed into motion picture. No less intriguing is to see the character Death breathed into life from Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago.

Read the Book, Watch the Film (2)

Murder on the Orient Express (2010)

Based on the 1934 detective novel, Murder on the Orient Express, the latest adaptation from 2010, co-produced by ITV Studios and WGBH-TV, starring David Suchet who reprises the role of Hercule Poirot.

The intrigue of the story has been known to generations of readers: Returning from an important case in Palestine, Hercule Poirot boards the Orient Express in Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded for the time of year (a clue that is often overlooked). Poirot secures a berth only with the help of his friend M. Bouc. That night, near Belgrade, at about twenty-three minutes before 1:00 am, Poirot wakes to the sound of a loud noise—somewhat like a wail. It seems to come from the compartment next to his, which is occupied by Mr. Ratchett, a sinister man who is suspicious of his personal safety. When Poirot peeks out his door, he sees the conductor knock on Mr. Ratchett’s door and ask if he is all right. A male voice replies in French “Ce n’est rien. Je me suis trompé”, which means “It’s nothing. I made a mistake”, and the conductor moves on to answer a bell down the passage. Poirot decides to go back to bed, but he is disturbed by the fact that the train is unusually still and his mouth is dry.

As Poirot lies awake, he hears a Mrs. Hubbard ringing the bell urgently. When he then rings the conductor for a bottle of mineral water, he learns that Mrs. Hubbard claimed that someone had been in her compartment. He also learns that the train has stopped due to a snowstorm. Poirot dismisses the conductor and tries to go back to sleep, only to be wakened again by a thump on his door. This time when Poirot gets up and looks out of his compartment, the passage is completely silent, and he sees nothing except the back of a woman in a scarlet kimono retreating down the passage in the distance. The next day he awakens to find that Ratchett is dead, having been stabbed twelve times in his sleep.

This is very well Agatha Christie’s most well-known story. It’s a classic full of mysterious and contradicting clues and circumstances. Some of the stab wounds are very deep, only three are lethal, and some are glancing blows. The evidence points to more than one killer. In this 2010 adaptation, the adaptation is unusual in that the narrative begins with Poirot in the midst of solving his recent case in Palestine (referring back to the case mentioned in the book). While generally faithful to the original story, it has a number of major differences, such as the character of Cyrus Hardman being omitted from the story, with Doctor Constantine (who is changed from a Greek doctor to Mrs. Armstrong’s American obstetrician) taking his place among the “jury”, and Antonio Foscarelli being the lover of the maid (whose name is changed from Susanne to Françoise) as well as being the chauffeur. The evaluation of evidence on Poirot’s part, which constitutes to the most fascinating aspect of the story, remains the same. The adaptation is unusual in that the narrative begins with Poirot in the midst of solving his recent case in Palestine—but it’s rare contrivance quickly justifies. The adaptation in question takes on a religious and moral stance that is unprecedented. Poirot is shown to be turmoiled by the decision to incriminate the murderer(s), as he strokes his rosary repeatedly at the end. It concludes with an emphasis on Poirot’s moral dilemma—against his scruple. This one is extremely well-done and attentive to details. As the series continues, I find an increasing tendency of moral interpretation. In a sense, Poirot is no longer just a shrewd private detective who solves the cases, but is given to a gamut of emotions.

Read the Book, Watch the Film (1)

Based on the 1952 novel A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) is set in 1949-50 Hong Kong. It tells the story of a married, but separated, American reporter (played by William Holden), who falls in love with a Eurasian doctor originally from China (played by Jennifer Jones), only to encounter prejudice from her family and from Hong Kong society. A good amount of the story devotes to the widowed Han Suyin’s struggle to fall in love with the charmer Mark Elliot. An Eurasian, Doctor Han often often finds “the English side of her debating with the Chinese side of her.” That she has the run of foreign blood doesn’t make her an open-minded person. She is hung up on Elliot’s importuning question: Do you still not see what destiny has in store for us? Honestly, this is no big deal now, but it was outrageous to re-marry in Han’s time, as Chinese woman is to remain loyal (physical and emotional fidelity) to a deceased husband, behaving in a manner so decorous as the forbears. The movie ends rather abruptly, but leaves the impression that Doctor Han would have no regret in giving her love to Mark. What I find interesting is despite the authentic landscape of 1950s Hong Kong, the delineation of Chinese people is a far cry from reality.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987) is an adaptation of the 1970 epistolary memoir of the same name by Helene Hanff, a compilation of letters between herself and Frank Doel dating from 1949 to 1968. In 1949 Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft), in search of obscure classics and British literature titles she has been unable to find in New York City, notices an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature placed by antiquarian booksellers Marks & Co located at the titular address in London. She contacts the shop and—the chief buyer, Doel, as polite and soft-spoken as Hanff is loud and overbearing, fields the request from his book shop in London. A long distance friendship evolves over time, not only between the two but between Hanff and other staff members as well, including birthday gifts, holiday packages, and food parcels to compensate for post-World War II food shortages in England. In these days of e-books, and bland books constructed from franchised ideas and formulas, we are presented Hanff’s memoir, a story about a relationship spawned because of a mutual love of old great books. This growing and deep friendship never had its denoument—For the next two decades they correspond without ever actually sitting down for tea and crumpets. Bancroft brings Helene Hanff alive in all her dimensions, in the process creating one of her most memorable characterizations. Somewhat sad, but uplifting at the same time.

Helen’s enthusiasm and passion for them is infectious, and 84 Charing Cross Road is a rare film that can convey a character’s love of books without having the character come across as pretentious or pedantic. I enjoyed the gradual change in Helen and Frank’s relationship, the way their friendship deepens. The movie dares to rely on simple things—words and friendship. There is no grand drama, no whirlwind romance; Frank is married and committed to his family, while Helen is busy with her writing and books. I could sense that they’re kindred spirits, and under other circumstances might have fallen in romantic love and married, but whether that would ever have happened remains unknown. It’s not even worth much speculation. Their strong mutual understandings and respect for each other that their roles in each others life became inconceivably profound.

Success of Movie Tie-in

An article in Los Angeles Times today probes the success of movie tie-in. Does a book’s popularity guarantee its motion picture’s success? Books like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series, a new and generally acceptable term coined to describe the three books penned by the late Swedish author, have infiltrated all slices of society, conquering the linguistic barrier, as it has been translated to over 20 languages. Would the upcoming Sony release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo be a blockbuster? While the potential can be auspicious, it’s not clear that a book that’s a favorite with readers will prove equally successful at the box office. For the readers at least, who have individually developed pre-conceived ideas of what the characters might appear, how they carry themselves and interact with one another—the very private interpretation of the books, is hard to beat when the film is a product of director and screenwriter’s interpretation. In other words, they cannot satisfy everyone’s fantasy.

Take Harry Potter series, for example, the success hinges on the fact that the huge followers, at very flighty ages, long to see the fulfillment of Harry Potter’s being the ultimate wizard, triumphing over the dark forces that conspire against him every step of the way. Harry Potter is a rarity that both the books and the movies hit the jackpot. Audience set aside. What about the film companies? Why would they take up a book and make a movie out of it, other than that the screenwriters have run out of brain juice? Maybe the companies take advantage of the established publicity of the book. But, again, this goes back to the point I made about how readers become attached to books in a certain way. This could be a difficulty that neither filmmaker nor actors can overcome. How can an actor fulfill every expectation of the individual readers and fit into their vision? As for me, the issue is so much simpler. If I don’t give two straw about a book, you probably won’t see me at the movie.

Let me hear your thoughts.

Mao’s Last Dancer: The Film

Based on the autobiography of Li Cuexin, Mao’s Last Dancer, the film opened in major US venues on the coasts on August 20, with solicitous campaign even in Chinese newspapers, in which a quarter page ad is syndicated for a week to drive Asian movie-goers to the theaters in San Francisco. Before I read the memoir, I have never heard of Li, who was dancing with the Houston Ballet in 1981. Director Bruce Beresford has the knack to tug heart-strings but as he moves the inspirational material toward its tear-jerker finale, “it’s often hampered by awkward melodrama”, as Sheri Linden of the Los Angeles Times has noted.

Culled by party officials from his family in remote Shandong province, young Li Cuexin was plucked from among millions of other peasant children to attend Beijing Dance Academy. The film compresses the transforming details of the young boy to a ballet star-to-be under Mao’s regime. The train ride to Beijing, which he had never been, was his first. His meals at the state academy were the first time he’d ever had enough to eat. His untrained tendons and muscles were ruptured repeatedly by the contortions he was forced into. The changes also marked the beginning of his prescribed life to the expectation of the Communist Party. Beijing’s approval for him to leave China on scholarship to Houston Ballet Academy was China’s first such concession to an artist in almost forty years. The first time he ever felt air-conditioning was on the plane to America. His first automobile ride was from the Houston airport to Ben Stevenson’s house.

Li’s visit, with its taste of freedom, made an enormous impression on his perceptions of both ballet and of politics. However, the heavy-handed clichés about Chinese innocence and American experience as portrayed in the film is hopelessly outdated. Chi Cao, who plays Li Cuexin in the film, doesn’t disappoint as he delivered stunning performances. Bruce Greenwood brings a nicely smarmy self-regard to his portrayal of Ben Stevenson, the Houston troupe’s artistic director. The scene of the April 1981 spectacle that received national media attention, as Li defected in a showdown at the Chinese consulate in Houston, which I find is somewhat downplayed and eclipsed by dances being cut away to shots of O-shape mouthed, eye-bulging audience who had never seen a Chinese man playing Swan Lake.

Directed by Bruce Beresford; written by Jan Sardi
Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes

Order Does Matter: Movie Tie-In

Musing Mondays2

What happens when you see a movie based on a book/story, especially one you’ve not read? Do you feel the need to track it down and read it?

The only exception that I saw the film before reading the novel is A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. Thanks to the hype of the film, directed by Tom Ford, and that Colin Firth was nominated for best actor in various film awards, that Isherwood’s long-buried and forgotten novel is finally back in print. Otherwise, order does matter—reading the original novel takes precedence to watching the film. This principle has left me behind with many of the films that are based on the original novels, until very recently: The Remains of the Day, Maurice, and Rebecca.