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    How to Adapt a Classic

    What four recent productions say about China’s changing approach to literary adaptations.

    There is a saying in the television and film industry: “Second-rate novels make for first-rate movies and shows; first-rate novels make for second-rate movies.” For every “Godfather” that transcends its source material, there are dozens of flops based on literary classics.

    This is no less true in China, where fealty to the source text is often paramount. When Tencent set out to adapt Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem” into a live action series last year, it approached the project with the same reverential attitude that China’s state broadcaster used in the 1990s when it produced televised adaptations of four of the country’s best-known classic novels — even going so far as to reproduce lengthy passages of dialogue directly from the book.

    Although not quite on the same level, streamer iQiyi’s six-episode adaptation of northeastern Chinese literary darling Shuang Xuetao’s novel “Moses on the Plain” took a similar tact, going to great lengths to recreate the moody atmosphere of the original.

    There are obvious advantages to hewing close to an established text; doing so satisfies both fans of the novel and watchers curious about the original. But it’s not the only way, or even always the best way, to translate literature to the screen. Some of the best adaptations come about when creators are empowered to interpret the text according to their own understanding, rather than forced to pander to the widest possible audience.

    That’s why it’s heartening to see the public embrace two recent adaptations that didn’t hold the source material as sacrosanct: “Only the River Flows” — director Wei Shujun’s adaptation of the Yu Hua short story “Mistakes by the River” — and Wong Kar-wai’s 30-episode drama “Blossoms Shanghai,” based on “Blossoms,” an award-winning Jin Yucheng novel.

    In “Only the River Flows,” Wei transforms the novel’s dispassionate, terse style into lyrical imagery, even as he shifts its focus from the farcicality of the human condition to the absurdity of the human heart.

    If Wei tinkers with his source material, Wong nearly turns it on its head. He not only discards two-thirds of the novel and condenses its three main characters into a single protagonist — A Bao — but he also adds new storylines that turn “Blossoms” into a very Wong Kar-wai-styled story of love, adventure, and destiny.

    Nor does he limit himself to changing the plot of Jin’s novel: The show’s visual style represents an almost total inversion of the original. Whereas Jin emphasized the muted poise prized in “Old Shanghai” culture — exemplified through the repetition of the Shanghainese phrase buxiang, or “silence” — Wong gives free rein to his idiosyncratic, bombastic visuals. He magnifies details, elevates trivial issues into matters of life and death, and amplifies the quiet of buxiang into juxiang — a cacophony.

    Initially, it seemed as though he’d gone too far, and audiences were critical. But by committing to direct “Blossoms Shanghai” like he did his films, Wong eventually swept viewers away with the sheer scale of his ambition. It’s not a faithful adaptation of Jin’s original, but has nevertheless captured audiences’ imagination in much the same way.

    Bold adaptations can give new life even to the best of literature. That matters less for well-known novels like “The Three-Body Problem,” but done right, it can help smaller, more niche works like “Mistakes by the River” or “Blossoms” reach a wider audience.

    None of this is to say that adaptations should ignore the source material altogether. The producers of all four adaptions listed here clearly understood and engaged with the works they were adapting, even if they later made changes. But there is no such thing as a fully faithful adaptation. It is better to understand film and TV adaptations as a kind of literary criticism: they recount the original story while also analyzing, assessing, deconstructing, and reconstructing it through their creators’ own subjective lens.

    Translator: Katherine Tse.

    (Header image: Visuals from nPine/VCG and Douban, reedited by Sixth Tone)