World Cinema: Why didn’t the adaptation of Norwegian Wood work?

In this week’s World Cinema column, Nick looks at the recent movie adaptation of the best-selling novel, Norwegian Wood, and wonders what went wrong...

So I went to see Norwegian Wood a few weeks ago. For those unfamiliar, Norwegian Wood is not only the name of a particularly good Lennon/McCartney Beatles composition, but also the title of the 1987 novel by Haruki Murakami, an author who, since widespread publication of his work into English began in 2000, has become increasingly well known outside his native Japan.

It tells the nostalgic tale of Toru Watanabe, a student in 60s Tokyo who lives through an adolescence of sexual awakening, student protest, profound emotional loss and rebirth. On its original publication in Japan, the book went supernova, making Murakami a superstar author and causing him to flee the country to escape from his new found fame. As an indication of how crazy it got, fans would dress in red or green, the colours of the two separately published segments, to demonstrate their allegiance to their favourite section.

It has endured as a modern classic ever since, and has been embraced by readers over here. In fact, it is probably one of my favourite novels, although funnily enough, mainly for nostalgic reasons. So when I found out that film adaptation was imminent, I was definitely excited.

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Directed and adapted by the respected filmmaker Anh Hung Tran (known for The Scent Of The Green Papaya amongst other works), shot by Ping Bin Lee, who had previously assured his place in movie greatness with his work on In The Mood For Love, and scored by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (his first score since There Will Be Blood), the film has pedigree.

You can never be too sure when it comes to adaptations, but I had a good feeling about this one. This was further fuelled by glowing press reports describing it as lyrical and sumptuous. I was jazzed for it. But then I saw the film, and while not a bad movie, it definitely was a bad adaptation. But why? What went wrong with it, and why did I come out of the cinema feeling, well, a bit let down and drained by it all, actually?

First thing’s first: it was just all too much. Yes, I accept that the novel has its fair share of emotional hand wringing and overwrought sections, but it never seemed to wallow in it quite like the film. Long shots of a man crying over the loss of his love may have seemed a good idea on the script page, but do not translate well to an audience already being punished by the sheer heaviness of what has come before.

In the novel, Watanabe’s devotion to the doomed Naoko never comes across as so desperate as it does here, and while the introduction of the feisty Midori (a secondary love interest) serves as a welcome relief in the book, it acts as a lifeline in the film, and you find yourself wishing desperately for her to reappear and lighten the atmosphere.

In fact, it becomes so oppressive that the audience I watched it with eventually began to laugh at some of the more po-faced moments, seemingly in an effort to not want to share the fate of the suicidal youngsters on screen. The film has none of the breeziness of the book, which in part is due to the setting of the action in the here and now (figuratively speaking of course, as the film’s action is set in the 60s) and narrated by a participator in the events.

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This means that everything is new and raw and happening now to Watanabe, while in the book a much older Watanabe narrates from the safety of looking back at the past, and therefore romanticises events, and perhaps no longer feels as strongly about them. It is a creative choice by Anh Hung Tran which dooms the movie to a heavy seriousness, and doesn’t let the adaptation find the same tone as the source material, which itself treads a tricky line between love, death and revolution.

While there was much to admire about the way Norwegian Wood was shot, especially with the beautiful nature sequences and the admirably disconnected student protests (superbly echoing the way Watanabe internally feels about them), the cinematography just concentrates too much on actors speaking to each other up-close.

The action never really opens up, and it is most definitely, bar a few scenes, a movie of telling and not showing. The film is intensely dialogue heavy, and while it may seem an odd thing to complain about in a book adaptation, I think I can justify it.

Films and books are not the same thing, despite their many shared narrative structures, reliance on imagery, and adaptations of each other. People often tend to forget that, and will often try to make a direct copy of book into a film. This never works. As I have stated above, they are separate mediums, and I think this is obviously so in Norwegian Wood.

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The film is so focused on listening to the characters’ words, which are the lifeblood of the novel, that it forgets to find its own rhythm, to be its own creation. Films shouldn’t be constrained by the page; they are, after all, living pieces of art, which represent completely different aesthetics than its origins. Norwegian Wood could have opened up the world of Tokyo and the lives of Watanabe, Naoko and Midori rather than sticking so closely (in both senses of the word) to their words and faces.

Paradoxically, this meant that I never got an idea of what they were truly feeling (bar extended wailing sequences), as it was all surface – if you’ve not read the book then you’ll probably miss a lot of the subtext, as I was mentally filling in the gaps throughout. It seems that, by wanting to do the novel justice, it failed to remember that it was a film, and therefore failed to adapt well.

This is a common mistake of many adaptations, and one of the reasons they are so tricky to do well (one of the many reasons I would like to point out. To list the others would be a completely different column, and not a snapshot one of why a particular film didn’t adapt well).

Anyway, despite a narrow focus on the faults of one film this week, I hope I’ve explored a wider issue in cinema, albeit briefly. For those who haven’t seen Norwegian Wood, I apologise for writing such a niche column! And also question why you’ve read all the way down here? See you next time.

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