Read Eliot Pattison's exclusive guest post about the illuminating process of adapting one of his novels for film, and then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of the 9th Inspector Shan Tao Yun novel, Skeleton God!
Great pleasures always await me when I commence the year-long process of creating a new Inspector Shan story. The amazing melange of history, politics, culture, and religion in Shan’s world offer many rich ingredients to stir together for a new take on his life. Even when I finish one of his tales, those complex elements still elicit a surprising range of reactions and interpretations from readers.
A few years ago, two friends each offered suggestions for scripting a movie based on one of my novels. When I saw how remarkably different their approaches were, I began to realize that extrapolating my books into movie projects could be an enlightening exercise that might help me understand how various elements resonate differently with different observers. I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s observation that “Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things.” A good movie, like a good novel, should be truer than life itself—but it can awaken many personal versions of such truths.
What if Skeleton God were made into a movie? The question becomes a great lens for focusing new perspectives and considering the novel’s essential messages. First, who should the actors be? There are some wonderful Tibetan performers, like California resident Tsreing Dorje, who starred in the movie Himalaya. Soktruk Sherab (recently arrested in Tibet on charges of “singing for political purposes”) would be ideal for the cast, if only he could get past Chinese censors. The Tibetan actress Lhakpa Tsamchoe (also Himalaya) has the perfect combination of strength and beauty to play Yara. Jetsun Pema, who acted in Seven Years in Tibet and is the Dalai Lama’s sister, would be wonderful as either Shiva or Nyima.
Any star of Chinese descent would have to be a true believer to commit to such a movie because of Beijing’s inevitable displeasure. Hong Kong-based Chow Yun Fat is an active supporter of human rights causes. Singapore-based Jet Li actively observes Tibetan Buddhism and has supported many Tibet causes; since a chronic illness now blocks him from violent, stunt-heavy roles, maybe he could be Shan—but is he weathered enough to fit the role? Korean actor Min-Sik Choi has a world-weary, gentle countenance that might be perfect for Dorchen or even old Trinle.
Would an Asian cast offer enough pizzazz for Western audiences? Should we put in George Clooney or Brad Pitt as Shan and let the make up artists take up the challenge?
And who would fit the role of Jig Bartram? This feisty, fortyish American woman—the only living Western character—is athletic and street smart, with a face that speaks of a once graceful beauty that has been seasoned by years, not all happy ones, in American law enforcement. Her striking eyes are often filled with sadness since finding her brother murdered and discovering the harsh realities behind the Tibetan fantasy her mother had woven for her.
Who would fit that demanding role? Would Tilda Swinton want to rehabilitate herself after being accused so prominently of “whitewashing” the Tibetan role in Doctor Strange? Lena Headley (she does have a certain Asian aspect) might pull it off, but would she thrust too much of Cersei Lannister into the role? Could Rachel Weisz convey such a gritty, soulful character? What about Cote de Pablo, who has adeptly played characters who are both physically and spiritually tough?
The harsh reality is that there is so much Chinese capital in Hollywood now that the only realistic course is that of an independent production—which might offer an opportunity for some bright new faces to be added to the mix.
Of course, before we start casting, we have to sell the concept. How is the book to be pitched to moviemakers? Is Shan just Sherlock Holmes wearing a prayer amulet? Is there a Spielberg angle, with an Indian Jones found dead in a lama’s tomb for the opening scene? Or is this more like a Dan Brown/Tom Hanks spectacle, with attack helicopters trying to block ancient manuscripts from being used to reveal a dark conspiracy?
Perhaps Skeleton God could be seen as just a darker version of Groundhog Day, which at its heart, after all, is a quintessential Buddhist parable of the role of karma through long cycles of reincarnation.
What would be your pitch? The Shan books may be very serious undertakings, but at their heart they embrace an energetic love of life, and Tibetans are renowned for finding a way to laugh in adversity. Speculating on a movie pitch and casting may be fun, but it’s also a great tool for nurturing new perspectives on Shan and the wrenching world he inhabits ... so Camera! Action! Speculate!
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Eliot Pattison is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Shan novels, including The Skull Mantra and Soul of the Fire. A frequent visitor to China, his books and articles on international policy issues have been published around the world. He lives in Oley, Pennsylvania.