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When books look good on screen

Updated: 2012-09-11 10:11
By Zhang Kun (China Daily)

Mo Yan, one of the country's most acclaimed authors, once wrote a novel for the big screen. It was turned down flat by the well-known film director, Zhang Yimou.

"I created my heroine in the image of Gong Li, who was (rumored to be) Zhang's sweetheart at that time," Mo recalls. "And I visualized her eyes, her poses and smiles throughout the whole writing process - I was already playing the movie in my head."

Mo says Zhang was very critical when he received the script. "He asked me, 'Why are you thinking on our behalf? You have even decided the position of the camera!'" the author recalls.

The harsh criticisms made the writer realize that "a good novelist might not necessarily be a good filmmaker".

Mo had thought he would be able to duplicate his earliest success - Zhang adapted his novel in the Golden Bear Award-winning movie, The Red Sorghum, in 1988. The success prompted the author to write a novel especially for the director.

He shared the incident at a recent international forum titled "Literature in the Age of Images" held in Shanghai. At the event, writers from home and abroad discussed their experiences and thoughts about the relationship between fiction and film.

Writer Su Tong, whose novels have frequently been adapted into movies and television series, says he has always remained cautious about book-to-screen adaptations, which he treats as "remote relatives".

"We are sad to see literature losing its supreme position to all kinds of visual presentations in the past few decades. Novelists are gradually being marginalized," Su adds.

Another Chinese writer, Wu Nien-jen from Taiwan, says more than 60 years ago during the golden age of Hollywood, it was predicted that film would overtake the place of literature.

"I think the situation has not changed much. Literature is consumed by images, but not replaced by them," says the novelist, playwright and film director. He occasionally acted in films, like Edward Yang's film Yi Yi in 2000.

Wu opines that good literature provides a solid foundation for film and television.

"They are not enemies, but co-related with influence flowing both ways. The two will co-exist for mutual benefit for a long time in the future," Wu says. "The struggles and conflicts will bring about better work."

Admitting that the golden age of literature has passed, British author David Mitchell says the future belongs to images. But he cites some exceptions particularly the success of children's and youths' books, such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series.

He says today's sexy vampire and werewolf story readers may become more profound and serious tomorrow.

"Literature is like a drug like crack, except it has healthy side effects," the British writer says. "It alters the state of your mind, stimulates imagination and helps you understand other culture and other people."

Mitchell believes that just as people deprived of vitamin C will crave fruit, someday, people feeding on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and a TV with 200 channels may have a stronger appetite for literature, because that's what they lack in their cultural diet.

Japanese author Atoda Takashi, who was chairman of the Japanese Writers' Society from 2007 to 2011, says compared to the large investment and wide public acceptance of films, literary writers have managed to maintain their personality.

"You no longer have to make everyone like your work, as long as a particular small group accepts it. And that gives you new freedom of creation."