Sunday, January 08, 2006

What's better: "Memoirs" Book or Movie?

For generations, Hollywood has taken blockbuster books and turned then into magical, multi-million dollar grossing movies. Books like Gone with the Wind, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Godfather, The Lord of Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series are just a few examples. Executives in Hollywood say they like them because the books are not only great stories, they’re proven material and they come usually with a built-in audience. But there’s always been some controversy from purists, those loyal book lovers who feel that the movie version didn’t measure up to its print counterpart. I believe Memoirs of a Geisha will be one of the first movies in recent memory that is actually better than the book.

Here at The Charlotte Weekly we have a thriving book club, called “Speaking Volumes”, that meets monthly and is dedicated to reading books that speak directly to women’s experiences. We chose Memoirs as our December pick because it offered us a unique insight into a time and place that is so vastly different from our own lives as modern American women. Books are such intimate experiences. One feels like they are sharing the character’s heart and mind during the journey. It was even more so because the book is written in the strikingly honest first-person narrative.

When the book came out in 1997, it was an instant best-seller that inspired millions of fans all over the world. Author Arthur Golden was a Japanese history major in college and he said his first intention was to write a story about a friend of his whose mother was a geisha. After spending time with a friend of his grandmother’s, who was a geisha, Golden threw out his 750-word draft which was originally written in the third person narrative and started writing what would ultimately become the book we all know now.

The movie succeeds so brilliantly because it’s able to show, not tell us what’s going on. Much of the 400+ pages of the book are devoted to extensive detail. There’s very little dialogue in the book between the characters. My friend Graeme, who is one of those passionate purists I mentioned earlier and loved the book, wondered how the filmmakers were going to capture one of the most unique aspects of the book: Sayuri’s own extensive interior monologue. I think Director Rob Marshall captured just enough of it by using voice-over which still gives you the narrative quality and guides you through her amazing stories which spans from thriving Japan in the 1930’s to post-war Japan in the 1950’s.

Speaking Volumes Book Club member Lena Claxton, who attended a screening of the film, said: “The movie does a good job of not belaboring the point. The movie highlighted the best points in the book but it didn’t beat you over the head with it.”

Where the book starts off with a lot of background about where Sayuri and her sister come from, the movie jumps right to the start of the action where the girls are carted away to be sold to a geisha house. Obviously to compress such a book into a movie you have to leave out some detail, but the screenplay did a great job of keeping some jewels from the book that seem to be a nod at the legions of Memoir’s book fans. A poster of Sayuri in the heart of Kyoto’s geisha district take up only a few seconds on screen but book readers will remember what lengths Sayuri’s mentor strived to get her protégé in front of one of Japan’s most famous artists.

The filmmakers toned down some of the book. For as much controversy that the movie has stirred up in Asia, where nationalists were outraged that a Chinese woman shares an intimate moment with a Japanese man, if they had read the book they would know the filmmakers spared the viewers some of the more lurid details. Even one of the key characters in Sayuri’s life, Nobu, was portrayed as far less grotesque and disfigured as he was described in the novel. I think overall those touches make the overall story far more approachable to a Western audience.

This is definitely a movie that if you loved and want to know more, reading the book will only enhance the overall experience. The book offers more nuance and subtext that can be captured in a 2½-hour movie and it’s well worth it. The movie wraps up with a traditional Hollywood ending but if you want to know what happens after happily ever after, read the book!

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