It’s been years since I read Norwegian Wood, and this film adaptation of the Murakami novel by Tran Anh Hung brought back some of its poignancy – reminding me why I like the novel so much. It is also gorgeously shot, with brooding visuals, creating an wonderfully intimate and evocatively 1960s mood. Yet it wasn’t wholly successful in capturing a novel that’s entire essence is hard to sum up.
The novel is an introspective story about growing up in changing times, about a common tragedy so horrible it binds two young lovers together for as long as they can hold on. It’s about accepting inevitable change, finding a place in the world, and a loss of human connection in a bustling, modern age. It’s also about coming to terms with a friends suicide – and eventually moving on with your life, even though that of your friend is preserved at the tender age of 17 forever.
The mood of the novel is preserved in the adaptation, even if some of the details are not wholly fleshed out. Nagasawa and Hatsumi’s story is not fully explored, nor is that of Reiko. The ending isn’t quite how it should be either – the book ends with a fantastic paragraph, with Toru on the phone to Midori – “Again and again I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.” Here it is more of a summary, more complete. The loneliness of Toru’s time in the student dormitory is also missing – his ritualistic life, his Sunday’s, when he doesn’t “wind his clock”. The humour of the character “Stormtrooper” could have been explored further too.
Maybe it was impossible to incorporate all of these details into a film which already stands at over two hours. Norwegian Wood is a partial success – it shows some of the brilliance of the book. But the brilliance of the book rests on subtle qualities that are inately difficult, if not impossible, to translate to the big screen.
After watching the film I dug out the short story Firefly – an earlier version of some parts of Norwegian Wood. The final paragraph reads thus:
A long time later, the firefly took off. As if remembering something, it suddenly spread its wings and in the next instant floated up over the railing and into the gathering night. Trying to win back lost time, perhaps, it quickly traced an arc beside the water tower. It stopped for a moment, just long enough for its trail of light to blur, then flew off towards the east.
Long after the firefly disappeared, the traces of its light remained within me. In the thick dark behind my closed eyes that faint light, like some lost wandering spirit, continued to roam.
Again and again I stretched my hand out towards that darkness. But my fingers felt nothing. That tiny glow was always just out of reach.
That is the feeling the novel left me with – the film is a partial success at translating this poignancy, helped particularly by its musical score, to the big screen.