Reclaiming the Novel from the Cutting Room Floor: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny
Justin Hill describes himself as a writer who finds his story as he writes, but when he was approached to write the novel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, the story – in Hill’s words, the “who kissed who, and who died” – was already in place. The screenplay for the Netflix movie sequel to Ang Lee’s successful movie from 2000 had already been confirmed. If writing screenplay based on a book, Hill would have been shrinking plot-lines and characters: for this project he would have to do the opposite and “grow the script back into a novel.”
Both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movies originate in the stories of Wang Dulu, a prolific 20th-century Chinese writer famous for his Wuxia novels. Hill describes Wuxia as a genre of fantasy novel, similar to The Lord of the Rings, concerned with good versus evil and duty versus passion, within the context of Confucian and Asian ideas of family loyalty and self-denial. In direct translation from the Chinese, Wang Dulu’s novels – episodic and reliant on assumed knowledge of Chinese history – might not appeal to modern readers, but the books provided Hill with the depth of storyline and characters he needed to recreate Wang Dulu’s world for today’s audience.
Fans of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will welcome the return of female warrior Shulien, who comes out of seclusion to protect the legendary Green Destiny blade. Shulien lost the love of her life seventeen years earlier. Now she has another chance at love – but can she take it? In contrast, another character, Snow Vase, is a young woman facing the same choices, but finding her own answers. Hill welcomed the chance to focus on these characters: “Novels and films work very differently on the audience,” he explains. “Novels work through an interaction of writer and reader, in a way that is much more satisfying and intense than film – but they’re also much more internal. You can go inside a character’s head in a way you cannot on film.”
Character is also the key to Hill’s portrayal of the action scenes for which martial arts films are famous. A firm believer that action is dull in books unless closely linked to the desires of a character, he makes clear what is at stake in each fight scene. He also draws on his own experience of living in China in the 1990s. Learning tai chi there, he says, was invaluable in the writing of this novel, giving him insight into the philosophy and spirituality that underpins kung fu, and it is central to the core beliefs of his characters. He also used his first-hand experience of the sights and scenery of rural China – of the bamboo forests and mountain pagodas – to create vivid backdrops to the battles to safeguard the Green Destiny.
Although the screenplay gave Hill the bones of his story, even the dialogue did not transfer directly from script to novel. The one place where Hill did stay close to the movie process was in the description of characters. Not all the roles had been cast when Hill began writing, but as the actors were chosen he was careful to match his physical descriptions to the people bringing the characters to life on the screen.
For anyone unsure of whether to begin with the movie or the book, Hill says of his novel, “It links the two films together, and reaches back in time to before either film, and shows how Shulien turned out the way she did, and how her love life became so complicated. I would recommend seeing the films and then reading the book, and finding within it the answers to questions that the reader didn’t even realise they had.”
Justin Hill is the author of two novels set in China: The Drink and Dream Teahouse (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2001) and Passing Under Heaven (Abacus, 2005). He is currently writing the sequel to Shieldwall (Little Brown, 2011), based around the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
About the contributor: UK native Kate Braithwaite is now based in Pennsylvania. Her novel, Charlatan (Fireship, 2016), a tale of poison, aphrodisiacs, lies and infidelity, was long-listed for the 2015 Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 76, May 2016