“Norwegian Wood”: Film Versus Novel

April 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi in "Norwegian Wood"

Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi in “Norwegian Wood”

The standard rule about cinematic adaptations holds that good novels make bad movies and bad novels make good movies. This makes sense, since so much of what happens in good novels is confined to the characters’ minds, while most of what happens in bad ones happens outside them, and thus is entirely filmable. But this wisdom hasn’t really been true since two wonderful literary novels, The Remains of the Day and The English Patient, were made into excellent films. (As for the other part of the equation–bad novels making good movies–I don’t know, but then again I didn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, or see the movie.)

Recently I read a great novel: Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the book that made Murakami a literary superstar when it was published in Japan in 1987 and later, in translation, around the world. The fact that it’s a bildungsroman makes Norwegian Wood more accessible than Murakami’s other novels, which feature supernatural elements, historical delvings and post-modern puzzles. Though more layered than most mainstream fiction, the novel’s relatively straightforward storytelling and universal themes–love, loss and coming of age–explain its worldwide popularity.

The novel, which largely takes place between 1967 and 1969, follows Toru, a student at an elite university in Tokyo. At eighteen, Toru has left his hometown of Kobe for personal as well academic reasons: his best friend from high school, Kizuki, mysteriously committed suicide during their senior year, leaving a lingering sadness. In Tokyo, Toru is able to make a fresh start until he runs into Kizuki’s fragile girlfriend Naoko, who has moved there for similar reasons. Bound by their grief over Kizuki, Toru and Naoko begin spending Sundays together. In time they embark on a tentative romance, at which point Naoko abruptly withdraws from her college and disappears. Before he finds her, Toru meets Midori, a fellow student who is Naoko’s opposite: quirky, opinionated and sexually frank. They soon strike up a close friendship, but Toru, still in love with Naoko, resists Midori’s romantic overtures. In time he reunites temporarily with Naoko, who has exiled herself to a remote psychiatric facility after suffering a nervous breakdown. In the course of these events, Toru becomes the man he is meant to be: a caring friend and lover, an intellectual and a genuine adult.

Despite the deaths described in the novel–five, including three suicides–Norwegian Wood is less sad than you might expect. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, Toru experiences his share of pleasures–literature, music (not just the Beatles song of the title but a wide range of classical, jazz and rock), food, drink and sex–quite a lot of sex, befitting a college student in a sexually liberated time. In some ways, the novel is a late 1960’s time capsule, containing all that was exciting about the era. (I was a child in Tokyo during those years and can attest to the novel’s veracity, not just the musical references but the radical student movement that roiled Toru’s university–they used to riot outside my house.)

Although there are some specifically Japanese elements–buying sake from vending machines, visiting love hotels, getting drunk legally in parks–most of “Norwegian Wood” could take place anywhere. Part of Murakami’s genius is creating characters who are very much like their American and European counterparts: they eat the same foods, listen to the same music and have the same frustrations and goals. This universality makes Norwegian Wood adaptable for the screen, which brings us to Tran Anh Hung’s 2012 film, “Norwegian Wood.”

Though a French-Vietnamese director who (presumably) isn’t fluent in Japanese would seem an unlikely choice to adapt a Japanese novel into a Japanese-language film, Tran (“The Scent of Green Papaya”) does a good job with “Norwegian Wood.” The cinematography is beautiful, the locations–among them Kobe, Toru and Murakami’s hometown, and Waseda, their alma mater–are perfect, and the acting is excellent. If Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) is more handsome than Murakami describes, it’s an understandable exaggeration, and the script logically omits minor characters and back stories. Where Tran goes wrong is in ignoring the novel’s humor, not only Toru’s wry exposition but Midori’s hilariousness. Unlike the wispy, troubled Naoko, Midori* has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her great obsessions are food and sex, and she enjoys wearing outrageously short skirts even at the hospital where her father is dying. Although it would have worked beautifully onscreen, Tran leaves out this exchange between Midori and her father’s surgeon:

Doctor: Wow, that’s some short skirt you’re wearing!
Midori: Nice, huh?
Doctor: What do you do on stairways?
Midori: Nothing special. I let it all hang out.
The nurse chuckled behind the doctor.
Doctor: Incredible. You ought to come and let us open your head one of these days to see what’s going on in there. Do me a favor and use the elevators while you’re in the hospital. I can’t afford to have any more patients.

Tran even makes Midori’s skirt is more modest than described–it’s short, but not indecently so. Choices like these make Midori’s outrĂ© moments–for example, her expressed desire to watch hard-core porn films with Toru–seem discordant, rather than a natural extension of her curiosity and free spiritedness. As a result, “Norwegian Wood” is much sadder than Murakami’s novel, and not to its advantage.

*A language note: Midori, which means green, is not only a modern name but a word that was not widely used before the late nineteenth century. Before then, blue (Aoi) was used for both blue and green, and green was considered a type of blue, not a separate color. Beyond representing life, Midori’s name provides a direct contrast with Naoko’s: Nao means upright or obedient, and the traditional feminine suffix ko means child. Through their names alone, Murakami makes clear that Naoko, “Obedient Child,” is Midori’s polar opposite.

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