x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The man who talked Murikami into making a movie

The director of Norwegian Wood talks about getting the novel adapted for the screen.

Tran Anh Hung first approached Murakami in 2004.
Tran Anh Hung first approached Murakami in 2004.

Haruki Murakami is a famously protective writer and has hitherto refused all requests to turn any of his full-length novels into films. The Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung recalls that it was a tough process persuading Murakami to acquiesce to his request to make the film.

"It was a long process," he says. "I first met Murakami in 2004. He gave a good impression and was a very nice person, but quite serious and very quiet. We met several times but the first step at that very first meeting was to find out if he would even allow us to adapt. He was really clear that he would like to see the first draft and only then would he give the green light or not."

The author liked what he saw, yet he was unwilling to relinquish control of his project totally. "He had approval of script. He is someone who is really careful and he protects his work and I really have admiration for him because of that," says Tran. To this day the director does not know exactly why Murakami decided that he was the right man for the job. "I don't know what he saw, maybe he saw something common between his work and mine. I don't know."

The 47-year-old filmmaker was born in central Vietnam and moved to France at the age of 12 after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. He burst on to the international filmmaking scene in 1993 with The Scent of Green Papaya, which won two prizes at Cannes and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. His second film, Cyclo, starred Tony Leung and won a top prize at the Venice Film Festival before he made The Vertical Ray of the Sun in 2000.

The three films have been grouped together and called his "Vietnam trilogy". A common element is that Tran's wife, the actress Tran Nu Yen Khe, appeared in them all. He had far less success with his fourth film, however, a noir psychological thriller I Come with the Rain that starred Josh Hartnett as a private detective and Elias Koteas.

Adapting a novel is always a difficult task because the realism of the medium ensures that one of the main tasks of any filmmaker will be to decide what to edit out of the book. Tran says: "You need to be faithful because you are doing a portrait of someone else's work but at the same time because we are going from one art to another then there has to be a betrayal. It's unavoidable, it's natural."

He also accepts that it will be hard to please everyone because so many audiences will come to the movie with their own ideas of the story and have envisaged the tale differently from the director. He explains: "I think people should see the film as a proposition or a view on the book. When you are adapting a book you are not in fact adapting a story, but what you felt like when you were reading the book. There are all kinds of ramifications of this and what you have to do is put into the film what made you deeply moved when you read the book and this may be different to the point of view of someone else."

This film has a melancholic tone. The angst is played up more than the comedic aspects of the novel, but this sombre tone feels in keeping with the weighty tale of suicide. So I ask what Murakami felt about what he was doing with the characters when he brought them from page to screen.

Tran replies: "We never discussed the characters, which is good because when I'm doing a movie I never discuss anything with someone - you have to keep it secret, and keep it something secret that belongs to you. No one talks about feelings before he starts a painting, what happens is an artist has feelings and so when it's work-in-progress you never talk about it. I think no one can express his feelings before doing it, you can only know your feelings after doing it. Maybe afterwards you understand something that once started out as a vague feeling and an urge."

* Kaleem Aftab