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Film adaptation of Chinese literature

Studies of adaptation tend to privilege literature over film but not the other way around (and assume that a film adaptation has a certain responsibility to remain faithful to the spirit of the text upon which it is based). The main purpose of Hsiu-Chuang Deppman’s book, Adapted for the Screen: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Fiction and Film, I would argue, is to provide some alternative thoughts besides this assumption of how film and fiction should be viewed in adaptation studies. Deppman is interested in how filmmakers have gone about the business and art of transposition from one medium to another. This transposition and the processes involved in it in turn enrich our understanding of the interconnectedness of the cultural contexts of texts and artists in Chinese films and fictions. In other words, Deppman does not simply deal with the issue of what can be transferred in moving from fiction to film (namely, narrative) and what cannot be. More importantly, she investigates the distinctive ideological goals of writer and filmmaker that contribute to the differences between texts and films.

Deppman looks at connections between film and fiction in the context of various Chinese communities on the one hand, and contemplates their differences on the other hand. For example, one case study that Deppman uses to illustrate ‘gender politics’ is the adaptation of Su Tong’s novel, Wives and Concubines, into Zhang Yimou’s film, Raise the Red Lantern. Deppman argues that ‘Zhang draws from the strengths of Su’s plot and reconfigures the story’s narrative codes, notably transforming a key symbolic site in the novel – a defunct well in a back garden – into a rooftop death chamber’. As a result, ‘Zhang’s new metaphor illustrates the important directorial option of changing the staging of the story to maximize the cinematic effect’. The well in the novella and the compound roof in the film not only map out key theoretical differences between the two texts, but the distinct approaches to the exploitation of women also reflect profoundly different conceptions of the relationship between art and society. ‘These two metaphorical spaces’, Deppman suggests, ‘not only juxtapose the fluidity of feminine ambivalence with the solidity of the patriarch’s iron rule, but also open up very distinct imaginary space for the reader and the viewer’.

Many scholars argue that the one thing that literature and film have in common is narrative. By narrative, I mean a series of events, sequentially connected by virtue of their involving a continuing set of characters. Deppman questions this assumption in her book. One example is the adaptation of Liu Yichang’s novel, Intersection, into Wong Kar-wai’s film, In the Mood for Love. In Deppman’s analysis, Wong appears to radically distill Liu’s novel into nothing other than three frames containing three separate quotations: the opening shot, an intertitle, and a concluding still. Instead of reconstructing the literary narrative, Wong creates a new story line, thereby challenging the assumption shared by many adaptation scholars that narrative is the property that makes the two media commensurable. Liberating filmic adaptation from almost every question of fidelity, Wong’s style pushes us to recognise what Deppman calls abstract adaptation, a style that creates a new theoretical dialogue about how film and literature can intersect to reproduce aesthetic resonances. Deppman refuses to privilege one reading (or form) over another and remains focused on the distinct ways in which they have been received.