He may have watched The Garden of Evening Mists (TGOEM) five or six times, but author Tan Twan Eng still cannot quite believe this beautifully crafted gem of a movie is based on his novel of the same name.
“To think that the characters on the screen, the setting, the story, all originated from the pages of a book I had written. The whole thing still hasn’t really sunk in yet, to be frank,” he confesses.
He is also frankly delighted because he had put his faith in Astro Shaw, which bought the film rights to the critically acclaimed, award-winning international bestseller, even though it had no experience in doing an adaptation from a literary novel written in English.
It took seven years from the time he signed the contract in autumn 2013, but Tan was patient. “I felt that it was better to take it slow and create a quality film that all of us could be proud of, than to rush the process and end up with something execrable,” he says in an email interview.
So what were your concerns with Astro Shaw turning your book into a film?
Well, film adaptations of novels, particularly literary ones, are infamously challenging and complex. But I felt that a Malaysian film company would have the advantage of being familiar with – and respect – the cultural complexities of my novel.
Did you ask for creative control during the negotiations?
No, I didn’t ask for full control, or even any control, over it. I wasn’t that unworldly or naïve as to expect that such demands would be entertained. But Astro Shaw acted honourably during the entire process and kept me posted on the developments.
What do you think of the changes scriptwriter Richard Smith made to your story?
Every element in my novel had been carefully thought out during the writing and the countless rewriting. And this included the characters’ names and their background, the names of their houses and their dogs, the books they read, the music they listened to. Everything.
They all had to echo the themes of my novel. So naturally, I wasn’t keen on any changes to the names of the characters. But in the film, their altered names (from Afrikaans to British) didn’t really play a great role – in fact, their original names might have perplexed viewers – so it didn’t feel jarring to me. It was the right choice to make.
I knew from the start that the film would not – could not – be completely faithful to my novel. It’s called ‘adaptation’ after all, and not ‘replication’.
Film is a totally visual medium, while my novel is very ‘interior’, so [director] Tom Lin and Richard Smith had to find a way to show [protagonist Teoh] Yun Ling’s complex emotions and relationships to the viewers. I think they did it skilfully.
What did you like about the film?
Almost everything: the cinematography, the aesthetics, the acting, the music. But most of all, the refined sensibilities, the restrained yet powerful emotions Tom evoked. Given the themes of the story, he could have gone all overly dramatic and histrionic, but he didn’t, and the film is all the more powerful for that.
It’s an extremely sensitive and nuanced film. The heaviness of the subject matter is also leavened by moments of humour, which had me chuckling aloud.
And what’s even more remarkable was how diverse the cast and crew were and this diversity wasn’t forced or shoehorned to fit any trendy agenda. Tom mentioned that there were eight languages being used on the film set.
I’ve watched the film about five or six times [and I have] a few favourite scenes like the last scene [which] is a powerhouse piece of acting, and a brave, brave choice to end the film.
Anything you didn’t like?
I didn’t like that it was only two hours long – I’d have happily watched another hour of it. Hopefully, Astro will produce an extended director’s cut sometime in the future.
Astro Malaysia Holdings CEO Henry Tan said he wanted to make a movie with a Malaysian story that can fly internationally. Your thoughts?
I think TGOEM can proudly fly the Jalur Gemilang. Cinemagoers in Busan, Hong Kong and Taiwan gave it five-star reviews. What I found most heart-warming was that so many of them said they wept at the end of the film, and that they wanted to watch it more than once.
Do you think it will strike a chord with western audiences too?
Well, my novel struck a chord with western readers, so I don’t see why the film based on it won’t as well. My agents in London have already seen the film, and they were gripped by it and lavish with praise for it.
They’re clamouring for it to be screened in the UK and European cinemas. Readers of my novel in South Africa, Canada, Australia and the US are also demanding for the film to be screened in those countries.
Do you think fans of the book will be happy with the film version?
Tom and Richard have had to streamline the plot and change certain elements, but they have kept the heart and soul of my book intact. However, there’ll be diehard fans (and I’ve discovered in the last two years how large this number is, and how passionate about my book they are) who will not be completely satisfied with the film. I respect their viewpoints too, but I’d like to tell them, ‘Do at least only judge the film after you’ve seen it’.
You are working on a new book, which will be happy news for your fans. Can you share/hint what this new work is about?
I’m rewriting the book, but I’d rather not talk about it.
Watch the trailer below:
'The Garden of Evening Mists' opens Jan 16, 2020.
This article first appeared on Jan 15, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia. Read our cover story of Tan Twan Eng here.