Literary adaptations are a tricky beast. What may seem like pivotal elements within the context of a book often fail to translate to the strict visual demands of cinema. While it may seem counterintuitive, great works of literature are all too often turned into really dull movies. By contrast, pulpier mass market paperbacks often prove to be tremendously entertaining on the big screen.
On the surface, Haruki Murakami’s novel NORWEGIAN WOOOD would seem to possess all the attributes of a successful film. The mountains and coasts of Japan provide a picturesque setting, the characters are young and pretty, obsessed with pop culture and sex, and the novel features the stirring triumph of love over adversity. Yet director Anh Hung Tran’s film version is a mixed bag. Visually, the film is a triumph, but Tran fails to capture the novel’s complexity.
Those who are unfamiliar with NORWEGIAN WOOD the book will find little to root for here. Tran chooses to focus the bulk of the film on the romance between Watanabe and Naoko, who is having trouble adjusting to the suicide of Kizuki, her childhood sweetheart. After a troubled encounter on her birthday, Naoko commits herself to a remote hospital retreat in the mountains. Watanabe goes to visit her on his breaks from college, and they profess their undying love for each other, although their future is far from certain. When he’s back in school, he finds himself drawn to free spirit Midori, but she already has a boyfriend. While many of the film’s sequences are beautifully shot, this narrative doesn’t really justify the film’s 133 minute running time.
The story is told in extended flashback as Watanabe remembers the events of his youth in the 60’s, but this barely registers as very little contrast is made with the present day. It doesn’t help that Kenichi Matsuyama’s performance in the role is wooden at best. The character is somewhat enigmatic in the book but we still feel wrapped up in his decisions. Rinko Kicuchi is effectively haunting as Naoko but it’s hard for us to care, since Watanabe registers as such a cipher.
The film’s biggest failure is in its decision to reduce Midori to such a minor character. She’s one of Murakami’s most dynamic creations in the novel, and her sexual energy and adventurous spirit provide an effective contrast to the troubled Naoko. Tran’s decision to reduce her screen time is also indicative of a larger problem with the film as a whole. As in many of Murakami’s novels, the characters in NORWEGIAN WOOD are obsessed with sex, but Tran’s film turns out to be oddly chaste. When you consider that the film leans heavily on the novel’s other primary obsession, death, you start to realize the kind of uphill battle this film is facing. Like many college students, Watanabe spends a lot of his time chasing girls, but that pattern doesn’t seem to fit with Tran’s vision of the book, which reduces him to obsessing over Naoko until circumstances dictate that he do otherwise.
Part of what makes NORWEGIAN WOOD so compelling is the notion that everything seems writ large when you’re in your twenties. For the movie version of Watanabe, this doesn’t lead to adventure and exploration so much as a premature existential crisis. The characters in Tran’s film are all young, but for some reason, they, and the film, seem to have very old souls, which is not necessarily a compliment.
NORWEGIAN WOOD opens Friday, January 27th at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. In Japanese with English Subtitles.