Haruki Murakami’s novels are notorious and remarkable for a number of reasons, all of which make them unsuitable fare for adaptation: his writings are often strangely surreal – in that they somehow put the emphasis on the suffix – philosophically dense and structurally complex narratives. So it is almost entirely expected that the end result of such a translation would be gobbledygook. However Norwegian Wood is unique in his already incomparable oeuvre in that it is, for the most part, a rather sane, straightforward story based on his own real-life experience as a youth; but in the hands of Anh Hung Tran the result is exactly as expected, a mess.
The story is loosely follows a young man in Japan, Watanabe, as he ventures off to a private college far from home and experiences the many splendoured, many spined sensation of the the opposite sex. There are three male characters and three female, each pair mirroring and playing off the others in interesting ways; though in the movie though the other two males are almost entirely absent. There isn’t much in terms of story, we see realtionship’s develop, complicate, splinter and dissolve over the course of a year but the real drive drive is not in what the characters do but why, the interest is all internal; and so this is the side of the story which Anh decides to skip entirely.
All adaptations are forced to cull material and the most easily jettisoned sections of a novel is normally the narration, I myself go straight to it when I’m adapting a script, but when you are dealing with a character based story you really need to find a way to re-incorporate those beats in a more medium friendly manner because without it the film lacks an applicable entrance point for the audience. If we do not know the character, if we are not ourselves in the characters mind, then we simply don’t care what happens to them and this film lacks any kind of character context.
On its own this doesn’t normally kill a film, rather it simply stops us from loving it, but given the fact that there is really little else here to like our lack of emotional involvement is greatly exacerbated. All the quirky little references and lines, the Murakami-ism’s that distinguish the book from all those other sullen teen angst stories are missing and somehow it is so much harder to take the material serious when it is being played straight. Of course if you were to ask our audience they would tell you that the film was a hoot, hollering as they did at any mention of sex or genitalia like grade school students but I personally found it very, very dry.
The other name that drew me into making a booking was Johnny Greenwood’s as composer/conductor. After There Will Be Blood, which ranks as one of my all time favourite scores, I was willing to see (hear) anything he was involved in and so I admit some bias is involved when I say that Tran under-utilized the mans work. The film’s first hour is virtually silent, I guess the material was supposed to speak for itself, and the second still uses its sound sparingly. The real shame is that those sequences that are scored, by either Greenwood’s original compositions or pop-songs contemporary to the time – are the films strongest by far; the slow, flowing style that Tran has attempted almost works with such a backing, but as I say, those moments are few and far between.
Those paying close attention – and I am not such a person, given that I am currently napping – will have noticed my use of the word slow in the previous paragraph and that I referred to a second hour. If you are looking for culprits than these are probably the two who had their hands on the knife when it went in. At two and a half hours the film is beyond overlong and yet its never manages to be anything but shallow. The film’s pacing is that of a stuttering car, the kind you see in movies when someone is a ‘bad driver’; it lurches forward in fits and bursts, spending five minutes walking silently through a park before sprinting headfirst through intricate, sensitive moments as if embarrassed by the emotion.
All in all I don’t see that there is much more that Anh could have done wrong and to be honest this wasn’t a story that really grabbed me in it’s original, optimal form. So as cold and alien an adaptation as this one was doomed from the beginning and this one just happened to barreled into that prophesied future headlong.