For a generation of romantically-inclined women, the image of Colin Firth emerging from a pond is a very special moment.
That pond is in Pemberley, and Firth is playing the fictional character of Fitzwilliam Darcy in the 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
That BBC version of Jane Austen’s novel is widely regarded as the best to hit the screen, a near flawless combination of casting, scenery and faithfully rendered script. Subsequent productions face inevitable comparison – and usually fare poorly.
Remaking a classic is no easy feat, and in China a local director is discovering as much.
Wang Jun’s Four Generations Under One Roof is currently airing on prime time on CCTV-1, and is based on a classic novel by Lao She.
However, it is receiving unfavourable comparisons with the original television dramatisation, which was aired in 1985.
Set in the 1930s, it is the story of the Qi family, who are living in Beijing during the Japanese occupation. The drama follows their daily struggles and dilemmas, living in a ‘fallen city’, and examines themes of psychological resistance. As reported in WiC14, anti-Japanese feeling still has a strong resonance in contemporary China, so this particular TV series was always likely to be talked about.
In the remake, Wang has assembled a well known cast, but critics have been quick to find fault.
Lead actress Jiang Qinqin, for example, has seen her performance benchmarked against that of Li Weikang who played Yunmei in the earlier version. Li was a Peking Opera star and Jiang has been called “a bit green and too weak” in comparison. The Wenhui Daily complains that she looks like she has never gone through any “pain” in her own life.
In fact, both leading actors – Huang Lei is the leading man – have been viewed as too young and glamorous, compared with the earthier and ‘more authentic’ leads of the 1985 production.
Further criticism has been raised about the mixing of dialects in the show – diluting its ‘Beijing” flavour – and the decision to play the traitor Guan Xiaohe as a sort of comedy villain.
Wang has defended himself in the national media: “The new version came 24 years after the earlier version, so the shooting methods and technology are not the same. When I shot it, I did not want to make it too boring and took into account the younger audience. People born in the eighties like lively things, so this drama has appropriately added some light comedy. But I think in addition to the anti-Japanese spirit of the novel, the most important thing is to criticise the state of numbness at the time.”
But he seems to be fighting a losing battle. According to the Southern Metropolis Daily: “Netizens are taking non-stop pleasure in comparing the drama with the old version and the more they compare the more faults they find.” The newspaper also sources a CCTV staffer who says that early episodes received ratings below the standard for programmes in that time slot. Older and middle aged viewers seem particularly disappointed by the remake.
Wang had earlier directed a 21 episode drama called Home, which was also adapted from a classic novel. According to the Qianjiang Evening News it used “many beautiful girls and handsome guys” and was criticised for “watering down the content”.
But he is not alone in receiving some flak – the critics have been withering on other recent projects too.
Many did not like John Woo’s Red Cliff 2 – complaining about deviations from the Three Kingdom’s original plot and criticising the “inappropriate” use of modern slang.
And when a local director made it known he would bring in foreign production teams to make a Lord of the Rings-style version of the Chinese classic, Journey to the West, one netizen’s outburst was typical: “I am worried he will make the Monkey King into King Kong.”
What to make of all this? Well, remakes always risk upsetting fans of the original.
But the strength of the outpouring in China is perhaps suggesting something more. In a fast-changing society – and China has changed more than most over recent years – people need emotional and cultural anchors. These classic TV series are an anchor of sorts, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the old show are remembered as more ‘authentic’ than their modern equivalents.
Director Wang seems to have taken the hint. He told the Qianjiang Evening News: “I do not want to shoot masterpieces anymore because of too much pressure.”
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