'Journey to the West' still a favorite go-to source for films and TV shows

Updated 2017-06-22 10:35:19 Global Times

Classic novel Journey to the West has been adapted so many times and in so many ways in China and overseas that people barely bat an eye when yet another adaptation of the story is announced.

However, just why this Chinese literature classic and its lead character the Monkey King have been able to fascinate people for so long still remains a mystery.

Probably China's best-known novel around the world, the story follows the monk Xuanzang as he makes his way to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures accompanied by his three cursed disciples Sun Wukong (Monkey King), Zhu Bajie (Pig) and Sha Wujing (Friar Sand). According to a Tuesday report from the Beijing Evening News, the story has been adapted more than 100 times worldwide since 1926.

"The characters, especially the Monkey King, reflect who we are during different periods of our lives, from happy childhood to tiring middle-age, and thereby appeals to us all," Jin Hezai, an online literature writer and the scriptwriter for the upcoming film Wukong, told the Global Times on Friday.

Wukong, to be released in July, will be the eighth movie adaptation of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel made in the past three years and the 60th or so adaptation since the 1940s.

Popular remakes

Outside of China, other Asian countries and regions have also been enthusiastic about adapting Journey, with Japan alone producing at least four TV series about the story from 1952 to 2007.

Asian adaptations aside, the latest U.S. series Into the Badlands, which features a powerful fighter escorting a boy hero on an odyssey to fulfill a sacred mission, is also "loosely based on" the ancient Chinese story, according to a Bustle report quoting the show's producers. Moreover, a new Sino-US coproduction, Journey to the West, is also on the way.

Audiences seem more than happy to welcome these numerous adaptations.

Over the past two years, a majority of Journey remakes released in the mainland, such as Stephen Chow's big-budget blockbuster Journey to the West: Demons Fight Back (2017), have chosen to debut during the Chinese New Year holidays, arguably the country's most fiercely competitive period for films. In most cases this was a wise movie as a majority of these films saw commercial, if not critical, success during the period. Demons Fight Back alone raked in more than 1.6 billion yuan (4 million).

Humanized hero

But where did people's fascination for this centuries-old pilgrimage story come from? And why have Journey remakes performed more successfully globally than adaptations of other classic works of Chinese literature?

First of all, it may be that the story's mythical setting full of monsters and gods provides abundant material for studios to make fantasy films that are easily understood by both Eastern and Western audiences.

Additionally, the characters and core spirit of the story also are a factor. While the US has dozens of superhero characters, for many Chinese, the sole and only local superhero is the Monkey King.

"Before I started writing Legend of Wukong as a 20-something college graduate, I had long been fascinated by the Monkey King," Jin told the Global Times, referring to the 2000 blockbuster online novel that made him a big name.

He pointed out that many people, including he himself, once dreamed about becoming a versatile superhero like the Monkey King, who "stood against the rules set by the celestial and underworld gods" when young, but after maturing becomes willing to accept the fate forced onto him by the Buddha. He theorizes that this is why his book, which featured a modern illustration of a defiant Monkey King, appealed so much to young generations.

"I was very much attracted to Wukong's rebellious spirit and his hatred toward the rules of a rigid world," Lin Jianyu, an 18-year-old university freshman, told the Global Times. He said that Jin's version of the Monkey King reminded him of his own life and appealed to him more than the original story.

While some regard Journey as a success story or a fantasy about fighting monsters, for Jin, the story is a pure tragedy - the quartet of characters go on "a journey given by the Buddha" and, after all the hardships they have to face, are stripped of their humanity when they become gods who lead lives with no feelings and in which nothing interesting happens.

Jin was also the co-writer for the novelization of Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons along with Chow. Commenting on his work with Chow, Jin said that Chow tends to humanize the four characters in his works, which is probably why his recent Journey adaptations and his 1994 A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella, in which Chow played the Monkey King, were so popular among Chinese and even foreign audiences.

"Chow told me he wanted to depict the quartet as ordinary human beings who experience frustration and pain," said Jin.

"While the Monkey King in Chow's movies is depicted as a grumpy disciple who always defies his master, but in Wukong, I focused more on his attitude when facing tough choices in life," Jin said.

"The Monkey King to me is sort of a tragic hero who keeps trying even though he knows some things are insurmountable," he said.

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