- Adapted for the Screen: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Fiction and Film
The remarkable achievement of Chinese film directors in adapting fiction into film has long challenged the boundary between Chinese literature and cinema as two seemingly separate academic fields of study. Few books, however, have offered a comprehensive and in-depth comparative study of Chinese literary works and their cinematic adaptations. Hsiu-Chuang Deppman’s Adapted for the Screen: The Cultural Politics of Chinese Fiction and Film fills this gap. As the author notes, one inherent challenge of studying Chinese adaptations lies in “the perilous risk of mixing two infinities” (p. 2), namely that Chinese literature and cinema are both produced in a rich intertextual fabric. But Deppman does not seek, as a number of Western adaptation theorists have, to establish universal rules that are applicable cross-text, cross-cultural context, and cross-media. Instead, she fully acknowledges the “empirical messiness of adaptation” and adopts “an approach that is responsive, [End Page 328] descriptive, and ex post facto” (p. 3). This flexible analytical strategy allows Deppman to structure her analyses of adaptations around different sets of questions that are sensitive to the historical contexts, generic elements, auteurial preferences, and gender politics that vary greatly from case to case. As a result, rather than undermining Deppman’s theoretical model, the infinite possibilities emanating from the Chinese adaptation provide a fertile ground for her sophisticated readings, revealing nuanced and diverse cultural-political discourses.
In her first chapter, Deppman analyzes Wang Dulu’s novel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (1941) and the eponymous film adaptation (2000) directed by Ang Lee. She illustrates the similarities and differences in Wang’s and Lee’s versions through a close examination of the adaptation in three intertextual networks: martial arts fantasies centering upon the jianghu underworld and its moral priorities; Wang’s nonconventional martial arts narratives filled with Freudian tensions among the id, ego, and superego; and Lee’s films that “systematically [explore] individual freedom and social constraints” (p. 13). In particular, Deppman focuses on Wang’s and Lee’s characterizations of the protagonist Jen. She argues that both Wang and Lee portray Jen as a paradoxical character who “both protects and transgresses the rules that govern her social status” (p. 22). However, while Wang’s Jen is a calculating individualist who eventually escapes from social and gender constraints through meticulous and pragmatic planning, Lee turns her into a romantic symbol of the collective “desires of many women” (p. 15) to venture into a utopian dream where “mundane concerns, rules, boundaries, and discontents become irrelevant” (p. 32). Based on this comparison, Deppman offers a coherent and balanced close reading of Lee’s controversial adaptation of the final scene, in which Jen leaps off the bridge.
Deppman continues to discuss gender politics in adaptation in chapter 2, focusing on Su Tong’s novella Wives and Concubines (1990) and its film adaptation Raise the Red Lantern (1991), directed by Zhang Yimou. In this case, she accurately observes that women’s struggles in both versions of the story are metaphorically connected to China’s quest for modernity. Deppman closely examines the “different titles, symbolic strategies, and narrative emphases” (p. 40) in the novella and the film and clearly reveals the distinct visions of Chinese modernity Su and Zhang produce. She argues that Zhang’s movie turns the aging patriarchy of Su’s novella, constantly disturbed and threatened by the “cacophony of feminine” (p. 40), into an “irreversible gender hierarchy” (p. 53) in which “the objectification of women’s sexuality intimates a criticism of China’s lack of progress” (p. 60). Deppman’s analysis makes way for further exploration of this adaptation in inter-textual and historical contexts. For example, her approach provides a framework for analyzing the relationship between Chen’s household and the “iron house” metaphor by Lu Xun, whose writing strongly influenced Su and Zhang’s generation. This intertextual...