I had been rather eager to watch CRA the film on its UK release in September 2018. Having read the book, and having learned of the courage of author Kevin Kwan in insisting that the character of Rachel Chu was to be played by an Asian actress, I was all for the film until I read of certain scenes.
I opted to wait until chats with friends meant that I had to watch it. While I loved the book for being a joyful, mangy peacock who loves himself, warts and all, the film was a cringe-inducing, integrity-lacking horror made by people who crave external validation only for people who live for external validation.
When I think of good Hollywood book-to-film adaptations, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘LOTR’ spring to mind. In ‘Jurassic Park’ the book, John gets eaten alive by chicken-sized dinosaurs, but survives in the film to spawn sequels. The velociraptors in ‘Jurassic Park’ the book do not have charisma, while everyone who watched the film will remember them. The LOTR films expanded the importance of Galadriel and Arwen at the expense of Saruman. Film Arwen and Galadriel are actually seen in Parts Two and Three, while Book Arwen and Book Galadriel are absent, and Book Saruman was involved in the Scouring of the Shire, which was left out of the films.
Despite these huge changes, these film adaptations kept the hearts and souls of the books intact because the fundamentals of Book Jurassic Park and Book Middle Earth were preserved. Film Galadriel and Film Arwen didn’t physically accompany and help the all-male Fellowship of the Ring, no matter how tempting it must have been for the creators of the films to have this. Saruman remained a memorable antagonistic wizard. John from ‘Jurassic Park’ remained the character who pushed for and funded the research and creation of dinosaur theme parks. The Film Velociraptors in ‘Jurassic Park’ did not change the storyline and setting, and did not change who the human characters were in relation to the dinosaurs (ie potential dinner).
This is not the case with CRA, which is very puzzling to me.
The heart of the book is Singapore, Nick, Michael, Astrid, Charlie, and Rachel’s mum, Kerry, but Film Charlie was absent, and Film Kerry, Astrid, Nick, and Michael were underused. In particular, Book Nick is much more proactive, and really fights for his relationship with Book Rachel in a strong, assertive, yet unshowy way. Placing his actions on an equal footing with Book Rachel’s made the book stand out as a romantic comedy.
The most substantial change to the film was scrapping the story of Book Michael and Book Charlie. Book Michael, who is Book Rachel’s counterpart, is the real reason why Book Astrid is ‘The Goddess’. A self-made success and recent immigrant, Michael comes from a family which is not wealthy like Astrid’s (just read how the poor man describes himself while he is trying not to fall apart), and he does not share Astrid's family's culture. Unable to cope, his erratic behaviour eventually drives his wife away. When the film removed the nuances of his story, it not only made Book Charlie disappear, but changed the characters of Book Rachel and Book Michael completely. It failed to show that Eleanor had good reasons to oppose Rachel (given the state of Michael and Astrid’s marriage, how would Nick and Rachel cope?), and it failed to show how Rachel deftly sidestepped the problems Michael faced. It failed to show how Book Cassian was caught up in his parents’ problems. It failed to show that wealth inequality and cultural differences in families plus personality differences are a potently toxic mix, and what Rachel’s strengths were. At this point, the film failed as an adaptation. It is ravishingly gorgeous, pretty to look at, but airheaded and clichéd. It didn’t just lose the plot, it never got it.
By ignoring bits in the book and adding bits that weren’t in the book, the film changed the story AND changed the book’s world to fit the new story (!!!). I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was so gobsmacked, I THINK I was supposed to cry, but winced instead. This was what ultimately destroyed the beating heart and soul of the book.
Unlike Jurassic Park and Middle Earth, which are entirely fictional, Singapore is real. What was shown in the film is a victory for MISrepresentation of the book, and of Singapore, and smacks of a lack of integrity and lack of respect for both.
Yes, there is an argument to be made for more Asians in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. Yes, Hollywood and America, it is a must to speak up for yourself and/or others. But no, don’t change a book-based world to make it ‘fit better on film’, especially if that world is a real place like Singapore. If you do not identify with or understand someone else's place, culture, and people, that’s just the way life is. The Sun is a star, the Moon a satellite. If you are bothered because you think you've gotten a hyphenated identity and it's screwed your life up, that’s life. You could address your own feelings, and create your own projects, and leave the someone elses to tell their stories. Or even better, you could meet the someone elses, and work together with them to laugh about and create and tell stories; that's the reality of having a hyphenated identity.
Had Henry Golding been Film Nick while the heart and soul of the book remained, I would have recommended the film wholeheartedly. But as the film lacks the heart, soul, truth, storyline, and setting of the book, I don’t recommend it. The book is everything the film isn’t; read it.
CRA the film is just the beginning. More integrity and courage in Asian-American filmmaking, please! On that note, I wonder how ‘China Rich Girlfriend’ will fare...