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Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” July 28, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in books, books into movies, historical fiction, Lisa See, literary commentary, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

In this post, I compare the movie “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” with the Lisa See novel it was based on. As with my other Books-Into-Movies posts (see below), this is not a review, not a critical analysis. I’m simply answering that question often heard when a book is made into a movie: “How close did they stick to the book?”

I will go through some specifics. But first, a general comment needs to be made. The movie invented a whole present-day story not in the book. This, to me, is part of a trend—the Dan-Brownitization of stories set in the past. We see this all the time now, with books and movies; a present-day story frames another story set in the past, as if the story set in the past is not compelling enough to stand alone. (We’ll see this again very soon in another Book-Into-Movie, “Sarah’s Key.”) This is a trend to discuss, but not now. For our purposes here, the Nina/Sofia story set in present-day Shanghai, is not in the novel at all. Sophia’s novel, read and experienced by Nina, is the Lisa See novel. I did not do any precise timing, but it seems to me the present-day story took up at least half the movie. I am not familiar with Lisa See’s other books, so I don’t know if any of this modern story comes from them. There is no reference to other Lisa See books in the credits.

The movie starts right off with references to two of the big themes of the novel. “Big Feet Productions” is clearly a jab at the Chinese tradition of “foot-binding,” deforming the feet of young girls to give them supposedly attractive little feet. Also, as the film begins, we see a woman writing nu shu, a coded writing for women to trade secret messages with each other in what was a repressive, male-dominated culture.

Some specific comparison comments:

  • Nina and Sophia are laotung (“old sames”) as Snow Flower and Lily are in the book. In the book, this was a special one-to-one relationship, not available to every girl. Sworn sisters, a group of girls bonded together, was portrayed as a less special bond than this one-to-one bond, laotung. The Nina/Sophia laotung vow in nu shu code is a reference back to the Lisa See novel.
  • The movie gives us a look at this horrible practice of “foot-binding,” deforming girls’ feet. The book gives us a more in-depth, more intense look at this practice. I will admit, I still have a hard time imagining what a properly changed foot would look like—I still can’t picture it. The filmmakers had Sophia concerned about the practice, with some sort of gallery or exhibit addressing it. There are sketches of feet. But we never see the finished product. We see women shuffling on tiny feet, wearing small shoes. As long as they had Sophia addressing this topic, I wish they’d taken it a step further: 1) What does a foot look like after the process? 2) Is this still widespread today—was that an issue for Sophia in the present-day story?
  • My impression of Lily’s mother in the book was that she was less sympathetic to Lily than in the movie, especially during foot-binding. The book explicitly depicts how girls are considered worthless by this culture, as if they are already failed human beings because they were born female.
  • We get a lot more about Snow Flower in the book. Lily is grateful to be a laotung with a girl who has such great chemistry with her, and who seems to be from better circumstances, but who still shares sisterly love. This is developed from the beginning of the story in the book.
  • A line that seemed absurd to me in the movie was Lily saying to her mother when she was about to be married: “I am not a good daughter for leaving you.” The book is clear that girls know from birth they will “marry out” and leave their families. Lily had no choice about leaving. No one would think she was “not a good daughter” because she was leaving after her marriage. (In fact, the book tells us Lily would only visit her husband at the early stages of her marriage, until she got pregnant the first time. Then she would finally stay with her husband.) The filmmakers may have been trying to generate the tension that exists throughout the book between Lilly and her mother.
  • The Temple of Gupo as a special meeting place, sometimes secret meeting place, is straight from the book.
  • Lily’s lack of enjoyment of sex, and Snow Flower’s enthusiastic enjoyment of sex, are from the book. (Snow Flower shows no shame for this at all!)
  • In the book, Lily’s first child is a son (as Snow Flower’s is).
  • In the book, Snow Flower tells Lily about her family’s fall from fortune just as they are both getting married. At this point in the book, Lily and Snow Flower have had a lot more interaction, with Lily always assuming Snow Flower has come from the better circumstances. What angers Lily in the book is that her family, and the matchmaker for both Lily’s husband and laotung, have known about Snow Flower’s circumstances for a long time, and have never even hinted the truth to Lily. Lily is especially angry with her mother for this. When Lily finds out Snow Flower is betrothed to a butcher, she considers this the worst possible match. Snow Flower reads pity, and tells Lily she does not want pity. Lily is confused. She says she does not feel pity.
  • I recall Lily’s mother-in-law disapproving of Snow Flower in the book, but I do not recall her discovery of their secret meeting and striking Lily as a result.
  • The typhoid epidemic is straight out of the book, including the deaths that make Lily and her husband masters of a wealthy, high-status household.
  • In the movie, Lily does not discover Snow Flower’s husband is a butcher until much later, until she visits Snow Flower right at the beginning of the Taiping rebellion.
  • The rebellion story is very similar to the book, including Snow Flower’s husband beating her after their son (in the book, their second son, a stronger boy than their eldest son) dies.
  • In the book, Lily also asks Snow Flower to come live with her. Snow Flower points out that desertion is the worst thing she could do, and that she must protect her children. Lily then offers a lot of advice (in the form of demanding questions) about how Snow Flower can be a better wife and possibly change her circumstances. Lily is soon reunited with her husband, who rewards Snow Flower’s family, a “handsome reward.” Snow Flower then sends a note on the fan: “I cannot be what you wish…  Three sworn sisters have promised to love me as I am.” Lily takes this as a rejection of their laotung relationship and breaks off communication. This is the breach between them in the book.
  • The scene after the falling out between Snow Flower and Lily at a woman’s ceremony before a wedding is different in the book. The two women confront each other with harsh words detailing how each believes the other has wronged her. Lily is especially humiliating and blunt in her verbal attack on Snow Flower.
  • Snow Flower’s daughter coming to tell Lily that Snow Flower is dying is from the book. But there are sworn sisters in the book. They lecture Lily about how wrong she has been in her treatment of Snow Flower. Snow Flower has been dying of a slow-growing cancer for years, and dies in a slow creeping agony. Lily realizes at this point that she could have been a better friend. She brings Snow Flower’s grandchild into her family. She mentions that she and Snow Flower are bound together forever, and ends the book asking for Snow Flower’s forgiveness. I looked through the book, but did not see the passages about “the world always changing” and we “need to look within ourselves.” At the end, it seems to me Lily was trying to master the complexities of love and friendship, and lamenting her past deficiencies while trying to make amends in whatever way her world allowed her to.

There are three screenwriters credited with the screenplay—Lisa See is not one of them. Frankly, I would have preferred more Lisa See and less of this forced modern-day story, obviously injected as a parallel to the original story, maybe attempting to say something universal about friendship. But time taken in the modern setting takes movie viewers out of the immersion into that exotic world of China in the early to mid 1820s. For this reason, I felt the book made a stronger, more absorbing story than the movie.

Previous Books-Into-Movies Posts:

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special Easter Edition: “Ben Hur”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Jane Eyre

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: True Grit

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Gulliver’s Travels

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