Toe to Toe: Crazy Rich Asians

A friend of a friend (this is already so on par with the subject) told me that if you hadn’t read Crazy Rich Asians, don’t wait to do so before seeing the movie. The whole “it’s not like the book thing!” will sway your opinion of the movie. Well, I have one thing to say about that.

Lies.

If you haven’t read my review of Kevin Kwan’s bestseller, 1.) what are you waiting for? and 2.) you should know I love this book. It was easily five flames. Naturally, that gave me mixed feelings about seeing the movie. Books are always better than the movies they inspire (The Notebook being the only exception); even though I know this, I never want to leave a theater being let down.

Lucky for me, Crazy Rich Asians met my expectations on the silver screen; so much so that I would also say the movie is completely lit. But was it better than the book? Let’s find out as I take CRA toe to toe: book versus movie.

CRA

Round 1: Plot

The biggest complaint any book lover will give about adapted screenplays is that they don’t follow the books that influence them. To be fair, if someone’s bought the rights, they have the creative license to change the plot. (That doesn’t mean I’m over how much they changed and left out in Prisoner of Azkaban.) But Crazy Rich Asians the movie followed the book nearly scene for scene.

Winner: Book. Novels have many advantages over the adapted screenplay versions. One is that they can take more time to round out plot lines and provide more story. Naturally, there were a few scenes in Crazy Rich Asians that were missing further explanation or details. For example, the movie glosses over why Nick spent so much time with his Ah Ma as a child. If you’re not completely tuned in, you miss the reason why, which means you also miss some much-needed detail about his relationship with his mom.

Another reason the book wins out is the ending. Even though I really did enjoy the movie’s conclusion, which is the only big difference from the book, it doesn’t quite have the grit and reality as the written version. The cinematic portrayal ties up the finale into too neat of a bow.

Make no mistake: I love what the screenwriters did with the plot, and it was fun to watch it play out on screen. However, the book takes round 1.

“‘Aiyoooooh, finish everything on your plate, girls! Don’t you know there are children starving in America?'” Basically book and film.

Round 2: Characters

Similar to plots, authors have freedom to write at length to include more characters and go into more depth about their lives. Crazy Rich Asians the book has more players than the movie, and we see life through all of their eyes. In the movie, we really only see Nick, Rachel, and Astrid and their point of views.

Winner: Book. At first thought, I probably would have picked the movie for this round. It would have been impossible for the movie to detail every single character, but even if the movie doesn’t show every point of view, it does mention a large majority of the book’s characters. This approach was easier to follow, and I liked that the focus was more on Rachel and Nick. Damn, these actors had so much chemistry.

However, the book wins because having so many players is integral in illustrating the interconnectedness of these families and Asian society. Everyone knows everyone, and they’re all nosy and in one another’s business. For this story, we need all of the characters. This was captured better by the book’s technique. Furthermore, as much as I love Astrid and realize how important her story is (look out for China Rich Girlfriend), it felt a little disconnected from the overall plot. It was kind of like just dropping in one more character’s story to find some equilibrium with the book’s chaos.

“‘I’m so Chinese. I’m an econ professor that’s lactose intolerant.'” cinematic Rachel Chu.

Round 3: Artistry

Art can come in many forms, which is why adapted screenplays from books are such a blessing as the power of words literally come to life. I describe Kwan’s particular flair in my review of his sequelChina Rich Girlfriend:

“…He’s a certifiable visual artist. I see clearly everything he describes; there’s never any vagueness to his writing, and the details are always there.”

The talent in movies can elevate this skill set, and fortunately, the movie kept the artistry on the same level.

Winner: Movie. Rich can mean many things, and we get the gamut in the movie. When it needed to be gaudy, it was gaudy. When it needed to be chic, it was chic. Scene transitions depicted this well. When setting up a scene that either jumped ahead to the future or jumped around the world, it used lurid gold text overlay on intricately designed backgrounds. The effect was over the top, and it matched the mood of the plot.

Furthermore, the movie utilized art to expertly convey an idea that can often be more easily described in text. For example, at the beginning of the story, Nick asks Rachel in an NYC diner to attend Colin Khoo’s Singaporean wedding. Radio One Asia, who is sitting nearby, manages to get word to his mother — through her spy network — within minutes. The director could have shown her simply placing a call to Eleanor Young, but that would have defeated the point the story was trying to make. Rather, we see her texting one person, which sets off a chain of hundreds of texts and calls around the world strung together by a mobile map. It’s quick and frenzied and showcases the small yet nosy world our characters live in.

Most movies don’t capitalize on these cinematic opportunities, but CRA did.

“I criticize you when you’re wearing something that looks so cheap. It’s a disgrace to me.” Crazy Rich Asians book.

Overall Winner: Book.

Let’s be clear: In no way was this a knockout. This movie made me laugh. A lot. And it nearly made me cry (I’m sorry; it just does not happen). I was extremely pleased with how the directors, producers, and screenwriters turned such a phenomenal story into a pleasurable film. And can we talk about the cast — the first all-Asian cast since 1993?

AMAZING.

The actors really knocked this one out of the park with their talent, chemistry, and devotion to getting it just right. Looking at Henry Golding doesn’t hurt either.

This cast and movie matter. As Allyson Chiu from the Washington Post says, “Most important, it’s an entire movie about Asians without martial arts or stereotypical nerds. From what I can tell, based on the book and the trailer, this is an event I’ve been waiting for: a film with Asian characters who are more like me.”

Maybe it’s my penchant for books — it did inspire a blog after all. Or maybe it’s the having fewer tools that make me respect the book more. Ya know, the whole doing more with what little you have. Maybe it’s because this film wouldn’t have been possible without Kevin Kwan’s magic. Whatever the reason, the novel wins. BRB as I go reread the book and rewatch the movie.

“‘I can’t believe this airport has a butterfly garden and a movie theatre. JFK is just salmonella and despair.'” cinematic Rachel Chu.

 

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