The Development of a Pentalogy
Though the internal chronology is Crane Frightens Kunlun / Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin / Sword Force, Pearl Shine / Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Iron Rider, Silver Vase, the first novel to be written/published was the central one, Sword Force, Pearl Shine, followed by Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin, with Crane Frightens Kunlun.
In other words, Wang Dulu first went back in time, and then decided to go back forward in time.
Sword Force, Pearl Shine is the shortest of the five novels, and I suspect that it was originally intended to be a stand-alone novel. However, being shorter, it is also a little less developed than the other novels. This underdevelopment may have been a blessing in disguise, for I suspect it led Wang Dulu to ask himself about Yu Shulien and Li Mubai’s origins, which inspired Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin, and then he asked himself about Southern Crane, which led to writing Crane Frightens Kunlun. Crane Frightens Kunlun itself has a loose end, and tying that up leads to the creation of a key character (Yu Jiaolong) and much of the plot of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Whether that loose end was put in Crane Frightens Kulun on purpose because Wang Dulu was already planning to write Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I do not know. I strongly suspect, however, that Wang Dulu did deliberately write that open-ended finale ine Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because he was already planning to write Iron Rider, Silver Vase.
The point is, Wang Dulu did not have a master-plan when he was writing the pentalogy. He let it unfold organically, one book at a time, and even he probably didn’t know where the story was going to go more than a book in advance. The novels are much better because of this.
The scriptwriter Brian McDonald says that storytellers should be the slaves, not the masters, of their stories. To me, it seems that Wang Dulu was not the master of his stories, and I mean that in a good way. On the surface, they seem quite humble and not at all impressive, but they prove to be surprisingly powerful.
About the 2000 Ang Lee Film
Nowadays, even in the Chinese-speaking world, most people know about the Crane-Iron Pentalogy thanks to the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So how does it compare?
The film simplifies the story. A lot. It has to. It’s only two hours long, and most of the audience is not familiar with the events of Crane Frightens Kunlun / Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin / Sword Force, Pearl Light.
While I love the Crane-Iron Pentalogy as a whole, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the novel I love the least. Unlike the other novels, I felt CTHD has some rather long, tedious sections. The film, quite wisely, leaves out all of the tedious stuff, while keeping the most interesting parts.
Of course, while the movie leaves out a lot detail, it certainly drops quite a few hints. For example, one of the major characters is Cai Xiangmei, a girl who performs acrobatics on the street, yet the only reference to her in the entire movie is a single shot showing a girl performing acrobatics on the street. I think this is Ang Lee’s way of saying ‘Yes, I read the novel, but I simply do not have the screen time to include this character’s story’. I do not think people who haven’t read the novels are consciously aware of these little hints throughout the movie … but I suspect they can still feel that this is just part of a broader story.
Ultimately, the feel of the movie is not the same as the novels. That does not make it a bad movie – in fact, it probably would have been a worse movie if it had tried to stick too close to the novel. I have trouble imagining the subtle psychological tug-and-pull in the novels translating well into film, and of course the gorgeous cinematography of the film is totally absent in the novels.
It’s a good movie, and I recommend it. But…
The Thing Which Bothers Me About the Movie
I am going to be a bit vague to avoid spoilers.
The message of the movie is that you need to recognize, pursue, and consummate (romantic) love before it’s too late. That’s not the message of the original novel, but that is not a problem, nor is it a problem that the movie changes the ending to pull this off. The movie implies that a certain couple never got married because they did not realize how much they loved each other / did not have the courage to pursue their love, and that they regret this. That is also not a problem. The problem is … the couple used to demonstrate this point is Character Y and Character Z (I said I was going to be vague).
In the novels, Y and Z know that they love each other, and they didn’t remain unmarried because of a lack of courage. They stayed unmarried because they decided they did not want to marry. While one could have a great discussion about why they make this choice, it clearly is a deliberate choice on their part.
And they put up with quite a bit of nonsense from other people because of this.
Years after they have made their decision clear, their friends are still scheming up ways to get them married. They get kicked out of shelter onto the street in the middle of the night because of their unmarried status. At one point, someone practically orders them to get married.
But the movie glosses all over this. If two people who are in love with each other refuse marriage, there simply must be a problem, they cannot just be mature adults making thought-out choices about their own personal lives.
I think that’s rather insulting to Character Y and Z, and I think it contradicts the point the novels try to make about freedom in personal relationships. I really wish the movie had found a different way to make this point.
About the New Movie
The word is that Yuen Wo Ping, who was the action choreographer for the Ang Lee film, will be directing the new movie, which I’ve seen titled as both Iron Rider, Silver Vase and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 – the Green Destiny.
My guess is that it will be even less faithful to the original novels than the Ang Lee film, but will probably incorporate at least parts of the story of Iron Rider, Silver Vase. Personally, as long as they make a good movie which does not do anything too irritating, I’ll be happy. That said, I do hope they will include Han Tiefang and not change him too much, since he’s one of my favorite characters in the pentalogy.
The Heart of Wuxia
One of the things which strikes me about wuxia is the emphasis on the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and relationships with each other. This introspective emphasis is much heavier in wuxia than in western speculative fiction (with some exceptions). That’s not to say that wuxia is better than western speculative fiction, since western speculative fiction explores plenty of other things. Nonetheless, the emphasis on feelings and relationships makes wuxia stories (particularly novels) sometimes feel more like romance fiction than the speculative fiction I grew up with.
I have not read many of the old (as in written before 1950) wuxia novels, so I cannot make my own analysis, but I’ve read that the older wuxia novels are full of lots of exciting, magical, action-packed adventures, and contain not so much psychology. The claim is that Wang Dulu, and the Crane-Iron Pentalogy in particular, changed that.
Now, anybody reading the Crane-Iron Pentalogy for the fights and action sequences is going to be disappointed. It’s not that it’s badly written, it’s just that all of the ‘action’ parts are really brief. Wang Dulu always uses violence/action as a tool to get the characters where they need to go, and never as an end in itself.
Some say Wang Dulu brought the wuxia genre to maturity. His wuxia-romances certainly became very popular very quickly, and I can tell that he has a strong influence on later writers. Based on what I know, it seems that his major contribution is putting the ‘heart’ – the passion, the introspection, the intense human relationships – into wuxia.
Availability in English
Simon and Schuster acquired the English translation rights to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and possibly the other novels as well, and then did … nothing.
The 2001 Ang Lee movie, the 2004 movie, and manhua which bear the name Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are all available in English. I haven’t seen the 2004 movie, though generally it’s considered inferior to the Ang Lee film. I have also yet to read the manhua, but the word is that the first two volumes are actually based on Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin, and that starting around volume 3 the story gets further and further away from the novels.
I love the Crane-Iron Pentalogy. I’m still left with a sense that there is something wonderful about the stories which I have totally failed to convey in these two posts.
My love, as you may have gathered, is not equally distributed among the novels. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gets the least love from me, whereas my favorites are Iron Rider, Silver Vase and Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin. Particularly Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin. It is a beautiful novel which swept me up and then left me in tears. Part of me wishes they would adapt Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin into a movie, and part of me cannot imagine any movie adaptation being as moving as the original.
Next Time: Starry Starry Night (movie)
Sara K. worked on this post as Typhoon Soulik made its way across Taiwan. Soulik managed to greatly annoy Sara K., but it did not do her any major harm.