The Art of the Murakami Adaptation

In an age dominated by IP acquisitions in cinema, the art of the adaptation has seemingly narrowed and expanded in equal measure. Whether it’s adapting a recent YA novel series or the countless comic book blockbusters adapted from stories told in print from a half-century ago, cinema has leaned heavily on interpreting pre-existing literary works with established audiences to tell its stories. 

But the art of adaptation is not solely a monetary endeavour in modern moviemaking. There are opportunities to explore older works to uncover deeper truths in an artist to achieve newly interesting films. Two such examples are the recent critical darlings Burning (2018), and Drive My Car (2021), both based on the Murakami short stories Barn Burning and Drive My Car respectively.

Both films share many similarities; interpreting sub-50 page Murakami stories into films epic in length (148m for Burning, 179m for Drive My Car), exploring the interpersonal relationships that were only suggested within the source text, and exploring a place and time unique to their works. Lee Chang-dong shifted the story of Barn Burning from Japan to South Korea, whilst Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe shifted the story of Drive My Car from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

Exploring works of adaptation in cinema is a rewarding experience in understanding both works and creators better, and is worth comparing these two excellent films in tandem with Murakami’s short stories.

Drive My Car 

Hidetoshi Nishijima (left) and Tôko Miura in Drive My Car

“Murakami’s writing is wonderful at expressing inner emotions, and I think that’s why people want to adapt them. But it’s really difficult to re-create those inner feelings in film.” – Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Fresh off multiple Oscar nominations including best adapted screenplay, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s masterpiece expands on every moment from Murakami’s short story while introducing his own fresh moments that truly thrive within the three-hour romantic drama epic.

So much is added to the story within the 40-minute prologue Hamaguchi and Oe create in the film. In literary fiction, the absence of a character is much easier to express to an audience. But in film, it is much harder for an audience to garner a relationship to a character that is only referenced. Imagine Up (2009) without its opening montage. The absence of Ellie through the rest of the film is profoundly felt by both Carl and the audience because of the impact the character had on us at the beginning of the story. Hamaguchi makes a crucial decision to further explore the intimate relationship between Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Oto (Reika Kirishima) during the prologue, deepening our relationship with the couple. Oto’s absence casts a deep shadow that hangs over the entire film in a profound and moving way.

Where the adaptation feels closest to Murakami is surprisingly in an original scene, where Yûsuke goes to dinner with Gong Yoon-su (Jin Dae-yeon), Lee Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim), and the driver Misaki (Tôko Miura). It is here that Yûsuke feels comfortable enough to compliment Misaki’s driving, stating, “I hardly feel gravity. Sometimes I forget I’m in a car.” This explanation of a seemingly mundane skill perfectly executed is described so beautifully, the surrounding world feels overwhelmed with character. This is a style that Murakami has perfected in his writing and this sequence is Hamaguchi’s nod to the story’s original writer.

In the short story, Murakami uses Misaki’s driving and its mundane grace to explore Yûsuke’s unexplored feelings and memories of his wife, writing, “for some reason, he recalled her (Oto) more frequently now that Misaki was doing the driving.” Hamaguchi follows this evolution of Yûsuke opening up about his feelings while Misaki is driving in a similar graceful manner, something he also explored in his other wonderful 2021 release, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

Sonia Yuan (left) and Park Yu-rim in Drive My Car

Murakami’s one gripe with the film was the change from the car being a yellow convertible Saab to a red sun-roofed Saab, a change he ultimately accepted. The red of the Saab cuts through the stark whites and navy blues of the environments Hamaguchi places it in. In a film built on the foundations of its long dialogue sequences, the simple visual style of the film is constantly engaging. By adding a roof to the now-iconic car, Hamaguchi creates a secluded space that creates a vacuum for the characters to enter. Whilst not as visually appealing as a convertible, the red Saab is a more striking cinematic object, gliding through the concrete labyrinth of Tokyo and Hiroshima.

A fascinating alteration to the original text is the character of Takatsuki, the young actor who has an affair with Oto in the film. In Murakami’s short story, the actor is in his early 40s and doesn’t share the same troubled past as a former star like his film counterpart. Through this change, the infidelity of Oto feels less connected to Yûsuke in terms of being a romantic stand-in, and more of an individual character decision, opening up the character to being more realised than in the short story. This change also deepens the conversations Yûsuke has with Takatsuki throughout the story – an element that takes up large portions of Murakami’s original text – as it creates a more interesting power dynamic between the pair as they search for a connection through Oto’s absence.

Hidetoshi Nishijima (left) and Tôko Miura in Drive My Car

Murakami’s short story focuses heavily on the theme of performance and acting, often citing, “we’re all acting aren’t we?”. Hamaguchi both explores these ideas deeper through the Uncle Vanya play while also obscuring Yûsuke’s ideas on acting by focusing the story more on his directing profession than his acting career, no doubt an area the director is more personally invested in.

One of the lasting images of the film is actually a profound moment in the short story too, of Yûsuke allowing Misaki to smoke in the car, which she accepts but also has too much respect for Yûsuke, but more importantly the car, as she smokes out the window.

Hamaguchi and Oe received an Academy Award nomination for Adapted Screenplay (an award most likely to be given to the outstanding Power of the Dog) and is everything the award should recognise. The film is a masterclass in extrapolating and personalising another writer’s story into the film medium, one that doesn’t overshadow the original, but mines new elements out of it to craft something truly special.


Burning 

Yoo Ah-in (left), Jeon Jong-seo (centre), and Steven Yeun (right) in Burning

Murakami’s writing in the short story is most compelling in between sentences. Burning works wonderfully as a work of adaptation as it is constructed to explore and expand on these silences on the page, without ever feeling pressured to over-explain.

The time spent between Hae-mi in Africa and returning is expressed with a single space on Murakami’s page, whereas in the film, Lee uses this time to explore our protagonist in this period of extended isolation. 

“Are you going to come back to Japan?” I asked her, jokingly.

“Of course I am,” she replied.

Three months later she was back, …

Barn Burning pg.2

This sequence runs for 10 minutes, showing him masturbating in Hae-mi’s room multiple times as well as going to his father’s assault trial. By adding these new layers to the character, the film adaptation seeks to expand both the Jung-su character as well as emphasise the absence Hae-mi leaves in his life.

A key scene taken straight from the short story is Hae-mi and Jung-su’s first night drinking together at a bar, where Hae-mi pantomimes eating an orange. This reads intriguingly in the Murakami story, introducing this charming and compelling character that both our protagonist and audience are unsure of. In Burning, we can see the scene performed, which greatly adds to the character’s performance of the pantomime and seeing Jung-su’s completely engrossed face as it is occurring.

A crucial thematic element to Lee’s film is the story of the African Bushmen’s two hungry people; Little Hunger, those who are physically hungry, and Great Hunger, those who are hungry for life’s meaning. It is clear even with Murakami’s short story that the female character of Hae-mi is looking for a purpose in the world that is soon to envelop her, ideas that are expanded and stretched further in Lee’s adaptation. 

Lee foreshadows Ben’s speech on burning barns in a restaurant scene between the three characters. Ben says he wants to “tell his story” to Jung-su, as he is a writer. Both the short story and the film characterise Ben as being interested in our protagonist as he is a writer. By foreshadowing this story instead of it appearing spontaneously like in the original text, Lee introduces a feeling of suspense and unease surrounding the mysterious Ben, for both Jong-su and the audience.

Jeon Jong-seo in Burning

The film’s most iconic scene is the dance sequence set to Miles Davis’ Generique, a powerfully solemn and introspective piece written for the Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958). Burning and Drive My Car both follow a lot of Murakami’s western influences into their adaptations, an aspect which no doubt endeared itself to a wider audience.

Murakami does not specify which Davis song is heard in the short story, allowing Lee to add a layer of artistic decision-making to his adaptation. Using Generique, Lee is layering the groundwork for a dreamlike sequence not unlike something you’d see in a Malick or Lynch film, particularly the red room in Twin Peaks (1990-91); a dream-state environment where key characters’ subconscious expresses itself openly. 

What makes Lee’s adaptation so entertaining is his willingness to explore the subtext of Ben’s unnerving nature through genre tropes of a psychological thriller. By expanding these notes of Ben’s character from Murakami’s original story, Lee is able to lure both the protagonist and the audience into the story before it culminates in the farm sequence where Ben describes his barn burning hobby, the launching point of the short story’s narrative.

An important and oftentimes overlooked element of the literary adaptation is to have well defined visual and sonic components. If there is no visual or audible interest in the adaptation, then the filmmaker is not using the advantages of the medium to full effect. Burning has a distinct visual and audible style which Lee uses throughout his adaptation to emphasise the mood of the film. Whether it be the thriller-tinged score by Mowg, or the sapphire soaked sky during Jong-su’s daily runs in the second half of the film, Lee is creating a world that is unique to Murakami’s original text, exploring new depths to the short story while still maintaining a connected through-line.

Steven Yeun in Burning



What makes both of Murakami’s short stories so compelling and rich for adaptation is his ability to create compelling characters in remarkably succinct ways. There is a deftness in its layered character work to be mined within 20-40 pages like in Barn Burning and Drive My Car that leaves Lee and Hamaguchi a groundwork to adapt to the screen, while also crafting characters an audience would want to explore more deeply in film. 

Much has been made of these two successful adaptations being long compared to the source text, displaying how much depth can be uncovered from Murakami’s short pieces. Both Lee and Hamaguchi seem keenly interested in the genre elements of his stories (detective noirs in Burning, domestic melodramas and theatre as subtext stories in Drive My Car), while also wanting to deeply explore these rich characters over the course of their adaptations. 

A common criticism of Murakami is his lack of female characters, something we see in both of these short stories. Perhaps the greatest inclusion Lee and Hamaguchi make to these stories are the two female characters that haunt both Burning and Drive My Car. By making both Hae-mi and Oto not just real characters, but truly charming people that an audience can get engrossed in, the directors are able to lay the groundwork for the narrative momentum of the stories. Just as Jung-su and Yûsuke are obsessed and entranced by these characters, so too are the audience, making their eventual absences create a cavity within the film that will not be filled.

Both films ask interesting questions on the art of adaptation. By exploring a short piece of writing by a revered writer, both Lee and Hamaguchi are able to create layered, dense dramas that extend far beyond their original text. Would these films have worked nearly as well without Murakami’s imprint on key moments? Or is it the duet of writer and interpreter, an overriding theme of Hamaguchi’s film, that gives these stories such powerful meaning?

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