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Home  /  Inside China  /  To Live 活着- From a Yuhua Novel to a Zhang Yimou Production
To Live 活着- From a Yuhua Novel to a Zhang Yimou Production print version
I was lucky to attend a lecture by famous author Yuhua, in which he discussed the of the adaptation process of his famous book to a 1994 movie by Zhang Yimou. A humoristic interesting story.

Last May Yuhua (余华) spoke in an authors' festival in Jerusalem, where he elaborated on his collaboration with famous movie director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋). I was surprised to hear that when Zhang contacted Yu at first, he wanted to use a different novel for a new movie production. Apparently, Zhang wanted to change many details in the plot in order to create his desired script, Yu Hua didn't agree and their communication seemed to reach a dead end.

Just then, Zhang asked if Yuhua happens to have a new novel, yet to be published. Yuhua gave Zhang a copy of his new novel ‘活着' (‘To Live'), making the director the first reader of the book. On the next morning Zhang gave Yu a call and said he was so over taken by the book that he couldn't sleep the whole night. Yu Hua was delighted, though later on he discovered that Zhang never sleeps more than two hours a night, so his sleepless night perhaps cannot imply that the novel is of high quality...

From that moment on Yu Hua and Zhang Yimou went through endless discussions about the latter's new movie script. Yu said that he was impressed by Zhang's deep understanding of government censorship. Zhang carefully modified some of the story's details that could perhaps be seen as political criticism so that the future movie would not be banned in mainland China (though eventually the movie was still banned from cinemas throughout the country).

Zhang's production company paid Yu Hua 50,000 RMB for the rights to use the novel. Yu Hua mentioned that he didn't want to join Zhang during the film's shooting process, since he feared that Zhang would want to change more details of the plot, and for the author the novel was already transformed enough...

So was Yu Hua satisfied with the final result of the film based on his dramatic novel? The plot is portraying the story of a family since the years of China's civil war in the 1940's until post ‘Cultural Revolution' years of late 70's. At first, Yu thought that the movie doesn't quite demonstrate the emotional experience of the main character Fugui 福贵, who manages to find strengths and vitality to endure his difficulties and move on from one crisis to another with a spirit full of hope. Later on, after viewing the film more than a dozen times, Yu Hua understood that he had found it hard to accept a new interpretation of the plot (and that any new version would have made him feel awkward), and the movie, after all, is a very good piece of art.


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