I’ve been going to Elephant Bar for years. It’s the Applebee’s of pseudo-Asian food of indeterminate origin: satisfying, unspectacular, and full of families on Saturday nights. I can’t count how many times I’ve enjoyed the plain teriyaki chicken and rice dish alongside an embarrassingly fruity cocktail, chatting with friends over the noise of crying children. For whatever reason—okay, an obvious one being that there are very few places to eat in Cupertino– I keep coming back.
So it was with great surprise that, on my last visit, I stopped, looked around, and said, “Holy shit. This place is an Orientalist wonderland.”
I can’t really say why I never noticed that before. Note that this realization came after three years spent getting a graduate degree in history, in a department where Edward Said is mentioned in everyday conversation (not to mention he’s painted on the front of our freaking bookstore!) and that, particularly in my exams semester, British empire was a huge focus and whatever hypersensitivity to empire nostalgia I already had during this time was undoubtedly heightened.
The giant elephant in the front of the restaurant: well, that’s unavoidable. The animal skin prints that sweep parts of the décor—zebra, giraffe, tiger—aren’t exactly subtle either. The turn-of-the-century, slow-sweeping fans brushing back and forth along the ceiling are a nice touch. They always remind me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. On this particular visit, however, I also finally noticed the late 19th-century-style European trunks with travel stickers reading “Zanzibar” and “Timbuktu” that serve as ambient decoration over some of the booths.
Tie all these pan-African and –Indian elements together with Elephant Bar’s commitment to serving pan-(East)Asian-infused cuisine and you have—tah dah!—an Orientalist wonderland, just like I said. It’s a campy, Disneyish mixture of the exotic with cavalier disregard for specific geographies. The trunks definitively indicate that the overarching tie-in to this mish-mash of “the Rest” (see: Niall Ferguson, below) is the pan-British Empire.
Elephant Bar is by no means the only establishment to capitalize on our collective British imperial nostalgia. There’s this colonial African-themed wedding that made headlines last year for its callous obliviousness, down to hiring black servants to fill the colonial-era black-servant-costumes. And in Victoria, British Columbia for a graduate conference about (aptly) race, I got the chance to visit the landmark Fairmont Empress hotel in downtown Victoria. Now, Victoria is a beautiful remnant of British hegemony, in some ways Britishier than Britain, still celebrating tea time and replete with Queen Victoria statue and British colonial buildings and even slightly, slightly British accents. Inside the Empress, past the gorgeous tea room that’s a must-do for tourists, across from the Authentic Native Art store, there is the absolute centerpiece of Orientalist fantasy—the Bengal Lounge.
Its name emblazoned across a gong-like hanging sign. Slow-sweeping British-in-India style fans brushing the ceiling. A complete tiger skin plastered over the fireplace. It was a place of great diversion for me and my fellow conferencers, at the same time that it was, of course, slightly horrifying. Orientalist and nostalgic to the very core.
What’s most striking to me about the brand of imperial nostalgia exemplified by Elephant Bar and the Bengal Lounge and other such places isn’t that it’s pervasive or offensive or wrong. It’s that it’s so, well, nostalgic.
I recognize and welcome it even as I conscientiously object to it. There’s something warm and familiar about the trappings of British society in the tropical jungles of India and Africa– the giant, sticker-laden trunks, the loose cotton dresses, the pith helmets. That’s because, culturally, this setting is interwoven into some of our most beloved literature and film classics and thus into our collective historical fantasy. As hard as I try, I can’t help but associate good memories with this setting, even though I never lived it, even though I recognize it as a dark time/phenomenon in the history of human and global interaction.
In The Secret Garden, Mary has spent her whole childhood in India, born to Britisher parents in the Empire’s Crown Jewel. Her neglectful socialite parents are lost in a cholera outbreak in their colonial home early on in the book, which is the reason Mary is sent to live with a distant relation on the Yorkshire moors (where she discovers the titular landscaping).
In The Jungle Book—well, in almost any Rudyard Kipling book—we’re in deepest India. More notably for my childhood, the 1994 Disney live-action “reimagining” of the story casts a 20-year-old Mowgli against a British colonial presence which involves him falling in love with a British officer’s daughter (Lena Headey) and becoming the love rival of another officer (Cary Elwes). Notably, Indian native Mowgli is played by Chinese-American actor Jason Scott Lee.
In Disney’s Tarzan, we’re in 19th-century Africa, where a white man orphaned by jungle cats and raised by apes is discovered by a British professor’s daughter, who he subsequently falls in love with. Tarzan is wild, raised in the primitive African jungle setting, and their romance holds undertones of the savage meeting the “civilized man.
In The Mummy, we’re in 1920s Egypt, at the time in a state of limbo regarding independence from Britain (achieved in 1922 but conditional until 1936). Swashbuckling American adventurer O’Connell and half-Egyptian love interest Evie unleash a mummy’s curse and enlist the help of memorable characters like WWI RAF veteran Winston, now a tottering hard-drinking regular at a Cairo bar, who puts his adorable pilot’s cap and goggles back on to fly them in his biplane over the dunes to the mummy’s lost city. Notably, the major Egyptian characters are played by an Israeli (Oded Fehr), a South African (Arnold Vosloo), an Indian (Erick Avari), an Irish American (Kevin J. O’Connor), and a Venezuelan (Patricia Velazquez). Non-major Egyptian characters either perish from pressurized salt booby traps or join the boils-ridden “Imhotep”-chanting mob.
In Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom, the second installment of the 1980s trilogy (let’s discount Crystal Skull, shall we?), we visit colonial India alongside the intrepid American archaeologist-adventurer. Plenty of people have already complained about the problematic racial representations in this film—mostly the centerpiece of barbaric Indian devil-worshipers who serve as the villains. It’s the 1930s, but we don’t see too many Britishers, so not a huge representation of imperial nostalgia. But definitely Orientalist.
In the Adventureland area in Disneyland, next to the Indiana Jones ride (which creates a new story for the franchise vaguely reminiscent but wholly separate from Temple of Doom), the Jungle Cruise takes you down a simulated Zambezi or Congo or somesuch to see exotic African animals and a few savage natives (all animatronic of course), proctored by humorous guides in khaki shorts. The Bazaar sells kitschy souvenirs like rain sticks and plush monkeys and safari gear. Aladdin’s Dinner Show sits next to the Enchanted Tiki Room. The former Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse now belongs to Tarzan.
In Heart of Darkness, the reader is struck with the same fear and wonder as the narrator Marlowe as his riverboat plunges deeper and deeper into darkest Africa, as he represents a structured British civilization slowly slipping away. Strange sounds reverberate from the trees at night; mute savages lay dying in groves; animalistic fury seems to sit just beneath the surface of every native worker. Terror and madness only await the British man who ventures that deep into the continent. This terror and madness is recast into the Vietnamese jungles for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and, maybe a little bit (but with more of a dry heat), into Iraq for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.
What does it all boil down to? Well, I suppose that British imperial nostalgia is burrowed into my very being. I was raised on the stuff, indoctrinated by 19th-century British authors and the 20th-century filmmakers who adapted their stories and the theme parks and theme restaurants who used their accoutrements as décor. I am guilty of British imperial nostalgia, even as I am critical of British empire.
This brings us to the very obvious point that, even as one is critical of empire, one cannot reject everything that occurred under empire. These were people’s lives—these were people’s lived experiences—these were generations of people, centuries of culture, centuries of innovation and production and literature and art and philosophy and knowledge.
Now don’t go all Niall Ferguson on me. Just because you accept that the cultural remnants of British empire are not completely without value (depending, of course, on how they are executed—most new recreations of empire are inherently problematic, but we’re obviously not going to disavow The Jungle Book) does not mean you promote and defend the very idea of British empire, nor promote and defend its modern-day inheritors (for Ferguson, American empire). As Ferguson so astutely points out in Empire, British empire brought plenty of “good” things to the world: liberty, Common Law, Protestantism, the English language, and team sports. Where would we be without these things? We’d probably be fine. But at the same time we don’t know what we would be. That’s the unavoidable, tragic, true point. It happened. And it forever altered the trajectory of global history. And it gave us a past to be nostalgic about, willingly or not.
I feel like, regardless of how I try to rationalize it, my British imperial nostalgia will continue to be tempered by a guilt that will, ultimately, result in an extreme ambivalence. So I won’t be boycotting Elephant Bar just yet. Empire is problematic. But empire happened.
So the old adage goes, that the movie is never as good as the book. It’s kind of the elitist’s refrain: “It was alright, but the book’s better.” Translation: “I read the book. I’m smart. I read books. Everyone else was lazy and just watched the movie. They’re all jumping on the bandwagon now. I READ THE BOOK.”
Unfortunately in most cases it’s actually true. With a few exceptions—The Godfather (the book was kinda pulpy and doesn’t nearly achieve the expansiveness of the film), The Lord of the Rings (in concept, obviously, the books are unparalleled works of genius, but tell me if we really needed all the dense paragraphs of description of foliage and food that J.R.R. packs in that trilogy?)—filmmakers can never quite get the book right. At least not in a way that satisfies a book’s fans. I’m not making any statements about the validity of one art form over the other; it’s just that something gets lost in translation between the two.
(Note: There is never, ever, any valid reason to have a film-to-book adaptation. That’s straight up not a valid art form. Just gonna say it.)
Regardless, I still get excited whenever a book I like is being turned into a film. I’ve been disappointed before (ahem, The Golden Compass!) but I still hold out hope that the film will at least halfway capture the awesomeness of the book, or even just take something awesome about the book and run with it in a slightly different direction. It doesn’t have to be the same! It just has to respect the source material enough to make a good movie out of it, faithful to a T or no.
So here’s three book-to-film adaptations and one book-to-musical-to-film adaptation that I am really excited about and that, by implication, am also crossing my fingers they don’t totally ruin:
1) Life Of Pi
Yann Martel’s book—with its blue ocean cover and its big orange tiger– was a huge hit when it came out, though I came away with mixed feelings. It begins with an interesting take on faith: Pi, the teenage Indian narrator, actively practices three different religions, and rather petulantly states that despite his piety he prefers atheists to “muddled” agnostics because at least they believe in something. It moves on to a gripping story of adventure and survival as Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a few of his zookeeper father’s charges, including an orangutan, a zebra, and, ultimately, after the rest die, only a tiger, with whom he must learn to coexist while surviving at sea. It’s a fantastic premise (in both senses of the word), and the “twist” at the end is intriguing, but in the end I wasn’t sure if I really liked the book or not. I might have to revisit.
An extended scene trailer (which I could not find online) was shown before Prometheus for Ang Lee’s film adaptation, coming in November, a scene in which Pi and the tiger are caught in a flurry of flying fish and then engage in a battle of wills over the prize of a boat-stranded tuna. It looks amazing, despite my wariness of creatures with major screen-time being CGI. And Ang Lee has done well with book adaptations before (Brokeback Mountain, and from what I’m told, Sense & Sensibility) while also not doing well with a comic book adaptation (the Eric Bana Hulk). Level of promise: 7 out of 10.
2) The Great Gatsby
This is the third Great Gatsby film that I’m aware of, the first being the 1970s film starring Sam Waterston as Nick the Narrator, Mia Farrow as Daisy, and Robert Redford as Gatsby, the second being the late 1990s TV miniseries starring Paul Rudd as Nick, Mira Sorvino as Daisy, and the guy who played a fake Caucasian/actual Korean in the last Brosnan Bond film as Gatsby. Rereading Gatsby a few years ago, I was surprised by how incredibly wordy it was. Both the denseness of its prose and its use of symbolism are a little hit-you-over-the-head (the optometrist’s eyes; the green light). But I still like the book. It’s a classic, you know? It wormed its way into the cultural fabric. And my heart.
So this version, slated for December release, has Tobey Maguire as Nick the Narrator, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby (and Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim… WTF!). That makes two out of three blond Gatsbys, even though I always pictured him brunet. Director Baz Luhrmann is known for his flamboyant over-the-top filmmaking, which has only worked once or twice (I love Moulin Rouge, and, yes, I enjoy Romeo + Juliet in spite of its ridiculousness, but I hear Australia was just plain terrible). But based on this trailer, it looks like he might have reined in some of his crazier impulses, and besides– the flashy, glittery, all-style-no-substance 1920s party scene might be particularly suited to his visual style. Level of promise: 8 out of 10.
3) Ender’s Game
For some reason Ender’s Game was assigned reading in eighth grade, and I remember it was just a fascinating and disturbing piece of young adult sci-fi that stayed in my head for awhile after. Ender Wiggin is a boy genius, the younger brother of two other geniuses, one brutal, one tender– he splits the difference between them. So, naturally, he’s recruited to the elite young person’s military academy in space to help in the war against an ant-like alien race. Orson Scott Card does not sugarcoat the violence of childhood—Ender is the victim of bullying on two occasions, and both times his tactical response is much worse than its provocation—nor for that matter the violence of adulthood, when Ender’s skills are finally put to horrifying use under the auspices of the military brass, which upsets him deeply and produces extreme moral ambivalence.
The film doesn’t come out til 2013, so not even any stills yet. But what I’m hoping for with this adaptation is that they avoid some Bridge to Terabithia shit (disclaimer: I didn’t see the film, but wasn’t the goddam book about your best friend dying? Why were the trailers filled with fantasy creatures? That shit was all in their heads! It’s not goddam Chronicles of Narnia!). Meaning, Ender’s Game is a dark and violent story, and it should remain as such. Hugo star Asa Butterfield is Ender, and True Grit star Hailee Stanfeld is Petra, and Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin is Valentine. Harrison Ford’s there too (kinda weird). Orson Scott Card talked about the challenges of translating the Battle Room to film—anti-gravity and all that—so looks like they’re taking the technology seriously. Level of promise: 6 out of 10.
4) Les Misérables
Of all the dramatically over-the-top blockbuster musical overproductions this is my absolute favorite. (The only other one is Phantom of the Opera, anyway, and Les Mis is like TEN TIMES better.) I’ve never read the book, so I can’t speak for its translation from book to musical—though I’m sure it’s not exactly faithful. But I can and will speak for its translation from crazy awesome musical to movie musical.
(There is a 1998 film version of Les Miserables, NOT the musical but the book, starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, Uma Thurman as Fantine, Claire Danes as Cosette, but I never saw it all the way through. And when I first heard about it, not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed they were not singing.)
(The book also spawned elements of The Fugitive—the film, and, I’m assuming, the TV show it was based on. Harrison Ford is a Valjean, Tommy Lee Jones is a Javert. “I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care!”)
So Les Mis is basically one of the biggest musicals ever produced. It was written by French guys Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel (?) Schonberg, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and imported to the U.S. and England and is now all over the world. It has a gigantic cast, a gigantic orchestra, a gigantic rotating stage, a gigantic effing barricade that people wave French tricolor flags from. It has thirty themes that you hear twenty times each. It has big hit songs (“On My Own,” “I Dreamed a Dream”). It has an epic struggle between righteousness and goodness. It’s possible to recognize, criticize, and fully and totally embrace the heavyhandedness of the whole overburdened enterprise, because it’s just that engaging and invigorating and exciting, and it’s just substantive enough to not feel bad about loving it.
In the film version coming out in December, we have Hugh Jackman playing Jean Valjean (no stranger to musicals, but no easy part!), Anne Hathaway playing Fantine, Russell Crowe playing Javert, Amanda Seyfried playing Cosette. It’s directed by The King’s Speech’s Tom Hooper. The trailer shows Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream” over a montage of scenes. Even if this movie is terrible, I will enjoy it, because if nothing else it’ll have a lot of awesome music. Level of promise: 9 out of 10.
Ah, screw it. They all get 10 out of 10! Make it good guys.