Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” is a brilliant example of film adaptation done right

Photo by Go Well USA.

To adapt a Haruki Murakami story is not a task to be taken lightly — yet South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong has directed the Japanese author’s short story Burning Barns into a gorgeous and riveting work of art that is his new film, simply titled Burning. Although Murakami’s short story is only about 20 pages long, Lee stretches out the film to nearly two and a half hours, adding significantly more content to the original text.  

The plot starts when aspiring writer Jong-soo runs into his old classmate Hae-mi and they quickly become friends. Soon after, Hae-mi goes on a trip to North Africa and comes back with a boyfriend, Ben, who Jong-soo describes as a “Korean Gatsby” because of his wealthy but mysterious lifestyle. One evening, the three of them have dinner together, drinking beer and smoking a joint until Hae-mi falls asleep on the couch inside; Jong-soo and Ben talk on the porch, when Ben casually admits that he likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses. After this evening, Hae-mi disappears. The rest of the film follows Jong-soo’s journey as he tries to uncover the mystery behind Ben and the fate of his dear friend Hae-mi.

Murakami’s novels are knee-deep in magical realism, where reality and fantastical elements merge together to create a hypnotic and dream-like atmosphere. The difficulty with portraying this quality in film is understanding how it’s even possible to translate the story’s ethereal feelings onto the screen. The proficiency in any good film adaptation is identifying what elements of the story will work well on screen and taking advantage of them. Lee shows his mastery in doing exactly this in Burning.

Take the following passage from the short story for example, where Hae-mi is showing her miming skills to Jong-soo:

“She’d take an imaginary tangerine in her hand, slowly peel it, put one section in her mouth, and spit out the seeds. When you try to put it in words it doesn’t sound like anything special. But if you see it with your own eyes for ten or twenty minutes, gradually the sense of reality is sucked right out of everything around you. It’s a very strange feeling.”

In the film, this scene is done perfectly, proving Jong-soo right: when you see it done over and over again, it’s a very strange feeling that is void of any concrete meaning, yet oddly captivating. Most of the scenes in the movie are quiet and long takes — lingering on a landscape or the faces of characters for longer than most other films would feel is necessary. The importance is placed on the mystery around these three characters, milking out their energies visually rather than through any verbal explanation.

Film theorist Robert Stam wrote an essay titled “Beyond Fidelity” that explores the strict expectations typical for film adaptations and makes an effort to reframe the mechanics in bringing the pages of a story to a screen. In it, Stam suggests that one way to look at adaptations is to see the film version as a transformation of the source text. A director takes “verbal cues” from the text and can choose to “amplify, ignore, subvert or transform” elements of the story in order to fit the medium of cinema. With this concept in mind, a director has the creative freedom to bring their own interpretations, adding a fresh layer to the story.

Burning adds a handful of new elements to the screen that build on top of the original story. For example, the pivotal scene where Ben admits his secret of burning down greenhouses to Jong-soo is only a back and forth conversation after dinner in the short story; in the film, however, the scene is prefaced with the three of them staring into the vast distance of rolling hills and desolate fields in the light of an orange sunset and jazz music buzzing in the background while they smoke a joint. Hae-mi then gets up and dances alone in front of an ombre landscape and her silhouette sways with the wind, making it one of the most gorgeous shots in the entire movie. Scenes like these aren’t only inserted for aesthetic purposes, but also to elevate the subtle themes in the story, such as loneliness, which Lee picked up on and highlighted.

There is no shortage of film adaptations from literature these days, many of them of often coming with a string of criticism complaining that the film wasn’t loyal to the original story, but this stubborn attitude is truly a shame. The mindset towards film adaptations needs to shift to see these movies not as a reproduction of a text but as a creative rebirth of it. We have to realize that the stark difference in mediums between a written story and a visual film, with qualities unique to each, will obviously result in a different experiences. For example, there’s obviously no soundtrack in Murakami’s short story but Burning highlights the tension that builds increasingly towards the end of the film with a sharp, cutting soundscape.

Neither Murakami nor Lee give any solid answers to the audience’s lingering curiosities. Instead, they feed us with the same hypnotic feeling of being in a dream-like world. There’s a certain level of pain that comes with watching films like Burning — it’s painful because there are no explanations presented on a silver platter and the ambiguity is overwhelming to the point that the viewer can be ruptured by it. Yet again, the film is captivating for this same reason; we, the audience, are forced to use our imaginations more than in any other movie. We walk out of the theatre with a bittersweet aftertaste and the mesmerizing scenes still burned on the back of our eyelids for days to come.