Adapting a hit

By Lu Qianwen Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-5 20:58:01

TV version of ‘Red Sorghum’ carves its own path

Zhou Xun as Jiu'er in the TV series Red Sorghum Photo: CFP

Red has always been an auspicious color in China, to the point it seems that the auspicious nature of this color can even rub off on works of literature. Take the well-known classic A Dream of Red Mansions, which has had such an impact that it even has its own academic field of study known as Redology. We also have the numerous works of literature written during China's revolutionary period, which were later grouped together under the term "Red Works" to commemorate this time in New China's history.

Then we have the extremely famous novel Red Sorghum Clan by Nobel Prize winning author Mo Yan. which has been a favorite choice for adaptation to the stage and silver screen since it was first published in 1986, the most famous of these probably being the critically acclaimed film Red Sorghum by Zhang Yimou. Starring Gong Li and Jiang Wen, the film left a huge impression on the minds of audiences with its sweeping vistas of endless stretches of sorghum fields.

Now it seems that it's time for TV to see if it can take a ride on the "red" train, as Red Sorghum, a 60-episode TV adaption of Mo Yan's novel, is currently showing on living room screens. Following in the footsteps of Zhang's Golden Bear winning film and in the wake of Mo Yan's Nobel Prize for Literature win in 2012, the show has quite a lot to live up to as comparisons to these earlier works are inevitable.

Not just a show

When it was announced in September of last year that the show would be bringing together the country's top director, actress and scriptwriter, anticipation for the show shot through the roof, as did pressure on producers.

This pressure went beyond the desire for the show to be a commercial success. Since Mo Yan's Nobel win, attempts to adapt his works have become an industry unto itself with many organizations all trying to get a piece of the pie. For example, seeing as how the author often used his hometown of Gaomi, Shandong Province, as the setting for many of his stories, the local government in the region naturally saw the show as the perfect medium to promote local tourism. Currently, the local government plans on investing 1.6 billion yuan ($261 million) to establish a cultural district dedicated to the author.

This has led to some interesting creative choices for the show. Besides showing long stretches of sorghum fields, which has become something of a local brand, the distillery where sorghum wine is made features in numerous scenes throughout the drama, to the point where it detracts from the show. During the first scene in which the distillery appears, the way the camera lingers on the wine making process is so unsubtle that the scene ends up feeling more like a commercial than a TV show.

New take on old character

Keeping in line with the "red" theme of the show, most of the clothing worn by lead character Jiu'er is red. However, this color choice may also serve another purpose, as it helps underline the character's enthusiastic and rebellious temperament.

Played by Zhou Xun, who is known for playing witty, smart and intractable characters, the TV version of Jiu'er is quite different that the film version played by Gong Li. First of all, Zhou just isn't as tall as Gong, and some see this as damaging to her character as Shandong women are known for their envious stature.

Meanwhile, Zhou's version of Jiu'er is especially eloquent, which some viewers find especially jarring as they wonder when the rustic farm girl became so well-educated.

In the end, however, director Zheng Xiaolong, an experienced producer who has had a hand in many popular TV series since the 1980s, clearly knew what he was doing when he cast the 40-year-old Zhou to play the 19-year-old Jiu'er, as Zhou provides a vivid portrayal a rebellious, persistent and independent woman who isn't willing to bow down to men, even during the troubled era that was the 1930's in China. When all is said and done, Zhou certainly has captured the essence of this character.

Inevitable comparison

Since the show premiered on TV in late October, constant comparisons have been drawn between the series and the landmark film which won its director and leading actors so much acclaim. Some of these differences are rather radical, for instance the show lacks the exciting sedan chair scene that took up 10 whole minutes of the film's running time, a scene that is considered a highlight of the film. Other differences are more subtle and likely due to constraints of the medium itself, scenes depicting the vast fields of red sorghum just don't look as beautiful and impressive on TV as they do on the big screen.

However, as a 60-episode TV series the show has certain advantages, especially when it comes to giving characters and plotlines room to breathe. Meanwhile, the new supporting characters added by scriptwriter Zhao Dongling have been really enjoyable, at least during the 20 episodes that have aired so far. This is especially true of the character Zhu Haosan, the head commissioner of Gaomi county. Played by experienced actor Yu Rongguang, he steals a bit of thunder from Zhou's Jiu'er every time he appears on screen.

One small disappointment lies with leading male character Yu Zhan'ao, played by actor Zhu Yawen. A bandit with a strong sense of justice, Yu has a complicated emotional relationship with Jiu'er and therefore has a significant amount of screen time. However, compared to Jiang Wen's portrayal of this character in the film, Zhu's acting comes across as stiff and unnatural. Just because a character is a bandit doesn't mean he has to shout every word he says. This isn't just tiring for the actor, but also for us viewers.

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