How many books written by a dead white man have you read? How many books have you read from someone of the same gender as yourself? Of the same ethnicity? How many books have you read by someone from your country?
When we choose what to read, we tend to gravitate to what we are familiar with. I was brought up in public school to read classical books, books by white people. I reflect on all the stories I’ve read, and I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t that surprised.
It is time we diversify our reading — and I’m going to approach this in a pragmatic way. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading books by white men. No, it just means I’m going to expand my perception of books that are available to me without that feeling that the author had not written the book for me. It was written for me — if I choose to read it. So here is what I’m doing.
I’m calling it the 1 out of 5 rule. 1 book out of 5 I read will be from a writer of a different gender or sexual identity. 1 book out of 5 will be from a writer of a different ethnicity. 1 book out of 5 will be from a writer of a different nationality. 1 book out of 5 will be a book that I think I’ll hate, which I feel will oppose my beliefs and interest. 1 book out of 5 will be a book of my choice, anything I want.
With something like books, we can’t be colourblind readers, because currently in most book store white authors take up more shelf space and therefore, if you just go in and grab a book, you’ll likely pick up one from a white author. At this very moment, if you want to read something written by a black, indigonious or person of colour, you need to dig for it. You need to make a conscious choice to do that. You need to go further down the aisle to look for it. And it’s fine. But let’s make that effort to do so. And this is how we start. It doesn’t mean we are going to stop reading Hemingway, Whitman and Faulkner. It means we are going to bring up the other authors as well, authors with perspectives that aren’t of the white man.
Look, there is no clear way forward. People are arguing and people are yelling. People are unable to be compassionate. People are blaming and people are shaming. Before we join that mob. Before we yell and scream — and add to the noise. Before we make a post about how we care and make other performative activism. Before we get overwhelmed and outraged. We need to start not by destroying the system, but we need to start by fortifying our ability to have empathy and our ability to be compassionate. That is where it starts. Reading is where it starts. Understanding is where it starts. Learning to think for ourselves is where it starts.
That’s how I’m going to diversify my reading and I hope you’ll join me.
I like to read a few different books at the same time. I find it helps me motivated to read more and it generally inspires me to write a lot.
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As Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men would put it: when we look back at the past, we tend to view it through “pink lens”. He recalled regular conversations with his grandmother, where she lamented that in her youth, young men wouldn’t spend nights playing poker while their girlfriends were left alone. Of course, such proclamations, as McCarthy knew, were unfounded as men have been known to partake in poker, pool, and other activities without their better halves since the beginning of time. However, his grandmother believed her statement and that in her lifetime the world had shifted — perhaps for the worse.
Written during the apprehensive periods after 9/11, No Country For Old Men is a story about corruption and greed, chance and justice, but it’s also a story about the foreboding future that we’re hurtling towards, and the ineptitude of our leaders, our law enforcements, and ourselves as we brace for violence and destructive forces that our beyond our comprehension.
Over a decade since it’s initial publication and adaptation by the Coen Brothers, the story’s nihilistic themes are still relevant as we’re now confronted with obstacles that the old men in charge seem unprepared to handle.
This is the story of Cormac McCathy’s inspiration and Joel and Ethan Coen’s process towards adapting the novel that pulls off the shades and reveals a world worthy of pessimism.
Born in 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island, Cormac McCarthy knew from an early age that he would fail to be a respectable citizen. Hating school from the early days and vowing never to waste his life working, taking orders from others, he pursued a life as a writer, educating himself with books during his time in the Air Force while dispatched in Alaska, when he was twenty-three years old.
With a curriculum designed by himself, he read novels feverishly from literary greats including Herman Melville, Fedor Dostoyevsky, and William Faulkner, who was perhaps the one he drew his style from the most. A lot of Faulkerian themes could be found in McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, published in 1965 had, which makes sense because it earned him The William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable debut novel.
McCarthy, with a literary grant, would end up building momentum from his first novel, travelling Europe, writing three more novels, before receiving a McArthur Genius Grant that enabled him, in 1985, to publish his fifth and perhaps most critically revered work, Blood Meridian, pushing him to the level as one of the great American writers of his generation.
In the 90s, McCarthy finally got mainstream recognition for The Border trilogy that included, All the Pretty Horses, published in 1992, The Crossing, published in 1994, and Cities of the Plains, published in 1998. While Blood Meridian was a violent, horrific story full of blood and carnage — The Border trilogy was restrained. However, with his next novel, No Country for Old Men, published in 2005, McCarthy turned the dial back, as the depiction of senseless evil required a trail of blood for the readers and the old sheriff in the story to follow.
As the years past, McCarthy stayed true to his personal ideology and avoided succumbing to greed or distractions. He made his writing the prime focus of his life, forgoing lucrative opportunities and public adulations. He grew up not wanting to work, and in a way he succeeded. In a rare interview with Oprah in 2007, after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 novel, The Road, the writer dispelled the illusion that his achievements — although were not work — weren’t effortless. He had no advice to offer aspiring writers seeking a workfree life, except this, “if you are really dedicated, you can probably do it.” One has to work to not work.
Prior to 2000, the relationship between McCarthy and Hollywood had not been great. For example, Blood Meridian was deemed a cursed adaptation project. The list of esteemed filmmakers that had been linked to the project and then forced to surrender due to the complexity included Ridley Scott, Tommy Lee Jones, Martin Scorsese, John Hillcoat, and James Franco. The problem wasn’t that these filmmakers weren’t imaginative or talented enough, the problem was that the studios weren’t willing to take a risk on it.
Go figure, that the first adaptation that Hollywood would commit to was All the Pretty Horses in 2000. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, All the Pretty Horses received an overwhelmingly negative reception to no fault of the source material. What hurt McCarthy’s first movie adaptation was the politics behind the production. The first cut of the movie was over three hours long, as Thronton had wanted, but Miramax insisted that he cut 35% from it. It was this that ripped the heart and soul from the movie, making it feel rushed, uninvolved, and flat. Some believe that the edits were forced upon Thronton because of his previous directorial foray, Sling Blade, in 1996, where he’d refused to make edits.
McCarthy always had an interest in stage and cinema. During his career, he experimented with writing scripts including a play, Sunset Limited in 2006 and a screenplay, The Counselor in 2013, directed by Ridley Scott. No Country for Old Men was originally written as a script, however, when it didn’t gain any tractions from Hollywood, he rewrote it as a novel.
Luckily, by the time he was ready to publish, the manuscript found its way into the hands of producer Scott Rubin. Rubin purchased the film rights and handed the script to Joel and Ethan Coen, who were starting their next project, which was an adaptation of a novel. The novel they had in mind initially was To the White Sea by James Dickie, published in 1993, a story of an American gunner surviving the final months of World War II in war-torn Tokyo. In the summer of 2005, the Coen brothers decided to put To the White Sea on the shelf and focus on No Country for Old Men.
What motivated them to pursue No Country for Old Men was how unconventional the story was told and the subverting genres. They loved the idea of the good guy and the bad guy never meeting face-to-face. They were drawn by the unforgiving landscape and the sentimentality of the story.
While No Country for Old Men would be the first official Coen Brothers adaptation, they were no strangers to drawing inspiration from literature. Their 1990 neo-noir, Miller’s Crossing was inspired by American novelist Dashiell Hammett and the 2000 comedy, O’Brother, Where Art Thou? was a modern interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. When asked about their selection process by Charlie Rose in a 2007 interview, they simply stated, “Why not start with Cormac? Why not start with the best?”
And so they did. While one brother typed on the computer, the other held a copy of No Country for Old Men open flat. They were praised for the faithfulness to the novel, where they didn’t so much as alter, but rather compressed scenes to fit with the medium of film.
Shot by the admired cinematographer, Roger Deakins, No Country For Old Men was a sharp left turn from the Coen Brothers’ two disappointing attempts at comedy, Intolerable Cruelty starring George Clooney and Cathrine Zeta-Jones in 2003 and The Ladykiller starring Tom Hanks in 2004. Pulling from the starkness of Fargo, the violence of Miller’s Crossing and the stylization of The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men required the Coen Brothers and Deakins to be absolutely precise technically, in order to capture the realism that the story required.
Meticulous storyboarding kept the movie on track, even through all the debates regarding the staged violence on screen. Without the violence, the emotional payoff would be lost and the merciless evil will lack the gravatas the story required. The movie doesn’t glamourize the violence, but instead shows the brutality of it. The violence happens quickly, savage and painful — and in a way, without purpose. The famous coin flip scene in the convenience store simply wouldn’t have the same tension, if we, the audience, didn’t recognize what could be possible if chance went the other way.
No Country for Old Men is a movie almost devoid of music. The choice to go with a minimalistic soundtrack was seen as a removal of a film making safety net. Music helps the audience reach an emotional peak faster. It guides the story and builds tension, allowing the viewer to anticipate what will happen next. Think back to any thriller or suspense movie, and you may recall the soundtrack leading up to a climactic moment. But without music, the storytelling is exposed, giving the audience an out-of-the-comfort-zone experience, making the movie arguably more gripping and suspenseful. It puts you there with the characters. You hear the breathing. You hear the footsteps. You hear your heart pumping.
The Coen brothers had a clear vision of who they wanted to cast in the role of the aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell. There was a shortlist of actors who had the qualities to portray a character who could really inhabit the landscape and provide a profound performance of an elderly man coming to terms. Tommy Lee Jones grew up in San Saba, Texas, not far from where the story was set.
Initially, the role of Lewellyn Moss was offered to Heath Ledger, who in 2006 was coming off one of the biggest years with starring roles in The Lords of DogTown, The Brothers Grimm, and Brokeback Mountain, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. However, Ledger had to turn down the opportunity because he wanted to spend time with his daughter.
Then came Josh Brolin. With help from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to film an audition reel during a lunch break while on set for 2007’s Grindhouse, Brolin entered the conversation for the vacant role. While the audition tape — shot on a million dollar camera — didn’t have the desired effect for the Coen Brothers. The director and writer duo would eventually meet with Brolin, through much persistence from his agent — and decided that the child star from The Goonies was the right choice. Even though before shooting started, Brolin got into a motorcycle accident while heading back from a wardrobe fitting, breaking his collarbone. Luckily for Brolin, his character would have a bullet wound in the shoulder for the majority of the movie.
The most memorable performance in No Country for Old Men came from Javier Bardem’s portrayal of the psychotic hitman, Anton Chigurh. The role brought a lot of challenges to Bardem, including a femine haircut that was not a wig but his real hair, which made going out in public during the three months of filming a unique experience for the Spanish actor. Another challenge was finding humanity in a character that had no qualms towards human life. Bardem pointed to the scene where Chigurh was alone stitching up his wound as an important one for the character as it showed the audience that he was not immune to pain, he was not a robot, and it’s there that we understand that this monster was like us, and that made him so much scarier.
With a budget of $25 million, No Country for Old Men was shot in the early summer of 2006 in Las Vegas and New Mexico, where it first crossed paths with a rival movie that it’ll forever be connected to: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The Daniel Day-Lewis epic about a ruthless oil tycoon, based on the 1927 novel by Upton Sinclair Oil!, shared location with the Coen Brothers in Marfa, New Mexico. The biggest problem with the shared location was that There Will Be Blood’s production sent heavy smoke into the air one day, causing No Country for Old Men to pause their shoot to allow the smoke to dissipate. Both movies set in the desert, with similar themes of greed and corruption, will be deemed by many to be the top two movies that year.
What made many love No Country for Old Men were perhaps the same reasons some disliked it. It was a movie that defied conventions, it straddled genres — suspense, crime, western, and american gothic — and it was, to many, infuriatingly mysterious. The offscreen death of Moss, the villain’s pathetic escape, and the abrupt ending, left many confused. But it was in those cinematic choices that made the movie so memorable, because it mirrored the lives we were living. We brought our own interpretation to the story. Are we governed by destiny or self-determination? Are we the hunters or the hunted? How have our immoral acts lead to where we are now, and how many more can we get away with before our luck runs out? These are of course questions without clear answers, but No Country for Old Men suggests that our luck is already up, and here are the consequences. What do we make of that?
On May 19, 2007, No Country for Old Men premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it became a frontrunner for the Palm D’or but would end up losing to the Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. On November 9, 2007, the movie was released in the United States, grossing over $1,200,000 through the opening weekend, becoming the highest-grossing Coen Brothers movie of the time.
The movie would be nominated for eight Academy Awards for Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and winning Best Adapted ScreenPlay, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Javier Bardem, Best Directors, and most incredibly, Best Picture, beating out Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, and their western rival, There Will Be Blood.
No Country for Old Men is a movie I think about often. It was released in my final years as an inspiration-seeking teenager and I watched it in a theatre that no longer exists. Like the character of Sheriff Bell, who reminisces about a simpler time, I too think back fondly of that experience — I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in that empty theatre on a Saturday afternoon. I have failed to recreate the experience ever since. That’s a great lesson in life, and perhaps the most pertinent theme of the story, regardless of chance or free will, we can only have this moment and whether we choose or not, this life will happen, so if nothing more, we should brace for it.
If the Coen Brothers were to adapt another novel, what would you like to see? Let me know in the comments below.
Louisa May Alcott grew up in a poor family that was frequently at risk of being broken up, needing to move in order to avoid food shortage. Her father, Bronson Alcott, who rarely held steady employment as a transcendentalist philosopher and educator, was not a good supplier and the efforts of keeping the family afloat fell upon Louisa’s mother, Abigail.
While Bronson had failed in many rights, he did encourage his daughters to embrace their God-given talents. Anna pursued acting, Lizzie took to music, May to arts, and Louisa to writing. This was the early 1800s, a time when women were discouraged from putting pen to paper. It was a culture that believed a woman writer was as shameful as prostitution.
And it certainly felt that way during those times. In 1867, 35 years-old, Louisa was approached by Thomas Niles, a publishing partner at Roberts Brothers. He solicited her to write a book for girls. Alcott didn’t like girls or knew many, only her sisters, so she was reluctant. However, her family needed money and after some pressure, she began work on a novel called The Pathetic Family.
In September 1868, The Pathetic Family was published under the new title: Little Women or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, in the England publication, released two months later, it was titled: Four Little Women. This semi-autobiographical story was a success, the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out instantly. Alcott received letters from readers, mostly young girls, who wanted to know what happened to the March sisters, most importantly who those girls married.
Because of this great reception, Alcott began working on the second half of the story, following these Little Women into adulthood. It was undeniable that the characters had a parallel with Louisa’s sisters and herself in real life: the death of her sister Lizzie, Louisa’s rivalry with her sister May — which mirrored Jo’s rivalry with Amy — and even her friendship with a Polish man named Laddie she met in Europe, who was represented in the story by the character Laurie.
There were two main divergences from the real experiences: First was the father figure in the novel, Mr March, who was depicted as a Civil War hero, while in reality Bronson Alcott was hardly such and was often seen as an embarrassment to the Alcott family. The Marches were much more well off than the Alcotts.
The second was the protagonist, Jo, who Alcott had based off of herself. While Alcott remained single her whole life, saying that she had a man’s soul inside of her woman’s body, Jo ended up married, which at the time was the pretty bow necessary at the end of any respectable tale.
Alcott was against having Jo married, but in the end, the best she could do was to make a compromise. She set Jo up with an unconventional husband, which was designed to subvert adolescent romantic ideas, for he was older and unfitting — when it seemed like she would be destined to end up with Laurie.
Nevertheless, in April 1869, Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second was published — in England, it was called Little Women Wedded.
Women from all different classes and national backgrounds, during a time when immigration was high in the US, could envision new dreams for themselves after reading Little Women. This was especially true during the 19th century when there were hardly any models for nontraditional womanhood. Literature was the first place to spark that self-authorization, opening the door for women to evolve and even encourage them to have a change of heart when necessary, whether it’s in their relationships or careers.
Alcott was an abolitionist and feminist and in the early 1860s, prior to her fame from Little Women, she wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. When the American Civil War escalated, in 1862, Alcott went to Georgetown DC to serve as a nurse. During her six-week service, Alcott contracted typhoid and nearly died. She survived and her letters home were revised and published in a Boston anti-slavery publication and a collection called Hospital Sketches. This earned her her first critical recognition as a writer.
While serving as a nurse, her father would send her poems saying how proud of her he was for her services. No doubt, Bronson Alcott would continue to be proud, as Louisa’s influence grew as one of the key female voices during the Gilded Age, which included Elizabeth Stoddard, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Anne Moncure Crane. In 1877, Alcott would become a founding member of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston, designed to support women and children during the rise of industrialism.
Tragically, on March 6, 1888 — two days after her father’s death, Louisa May Alcott at the age of 55 died of a stroke. She would never get to see her story of Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth come to life on screen, but her novel and the themes within will last for many generations to come.
In a 1979 essay by literary scholar Judith Fetterley, entitled “Little Women: Alcott’s Civil War,” she argues that the novel was pushing back against the framework for adolescent girls of that time. One prime example was where Beth, the character that best exhibited the acceptance of the woman’s role, died upon reaching adulthood, while the sisters that resisted conforming survived. Little Women will be the subject of feminist and literary criticism for years to come, and while some deemed it unworthy to be catalogued with the great American novels like Huckleberry Finn, the story had consistently attracted writers and filmmakers.
From 1917 to 2019, there have been numerous adaptations of Little Women made for the television and the stage, as well as 6 feature films.
The first was a lost British silent film in 1917 starring former Gaiety Girl, Ruby Miller who played Jo.
A year after, an American version of Little Women was produced around Alcott’s home in Concord Massachusetts. This was also a silent film and it starred Dorothy Bernard as Jo.
The first talkie adaptation of Little Women was released in 1933 and it was a huge box office hit, garnering rave reviews from the critics. Directed by George Cukor and starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, the movie’s theme about simplicity, frugality, and resilience resonated with the audience during the midst of the Great Depression. With that, it ended up earning the movie three nominations at the Academy Awards, one for best picture, one for best director, and one for screenwriters, Victor Heerman and Sarah Y Mason, who won for best-adapted screenplay.
In 1949, Little Women was adapted once more, this time in Technicolor, starring June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy and Margaret O’Brien as Beth. According to many critics of the time, it couldn’t hold a candle to the preceding version starring Katherine Hepburn, saying that although Allyson may have tried to emulate Hepburn it wasn’t as persuasive. But nobody could blame Allyson for copying as the script and music were taken directly from the version that was released over 15 years prior.
When Denise Di Novi, known then for producing Ed Wood and Nightmare Before Christmas, reached out to director Gillian Armstrong to gauge her interest in remaking Little Women, Armstrong, feeling the movie was too similar in theme to her first feature, My Brilliant Career, declined. However, Di Novi was persistent and encouraged Armstrong to reconsider. When she did, she found that the story was pertinent to the times and perhaps it was worth revisiting after 45 years. Armstrong would only then discover that Di Novi, producer Amy Pascal, and screenwriter Robin Swicord have been working on modernizing Little Women for 12 years. Their main pitch was for it to be a great family Christmas movie.
When Robin Swicord wrote the script for the 1994 version of Little Women, she looked back at the previous adaptations and saw that the main question in the story was “Who will these girls marry?”, but she knew even at a young age, that the question should be, “Who will these girls become?” Considering what Louisa May Alcott had at the heart of the story, she wrote the script focusing on the themes of ambition and identity.
Filmed in Vancouver with a budget of $18 million, Little Women starring Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvarado as Meg, and Christian Bale as Laurie opened to over 1,500 screens in North America on December 21, 1994, grossing over $50 million — a success.
In addition, the film earned three Academy Awards nominations for Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Actress for Winona Ryder. Robin Swicord was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by the Writers Guild of America Award but lost to Eric Roth who wrote Forrest Gump. Although many critics were skeptical about this remake at first, feeling it would be cheesy or overly sentimental, they found that it was full of serious themes and warm and meticulous performances.
Between 2013 to 2015, Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord, and Amy Pascal teamed up again for a new adaptation of Little Women. While the news about the project started to spread, many wondered what new aspects can be brought to a story that was now nearly a century and a half years old. During this time, Olivia Milch, who would eventually write Ocean’s Eight, was working on the script.
Later on, in 2015, Canadian actor and director, Sarah Polley — known for the movie Away from Her — was hired to take over the script and eventually direct the movie, but she never got much deeper into the project than the discussion phase.
Finally, in August 2016, Greta Gerwig was brought on to write the script. Little Women was a book that she grew up with and loved. She went as far as saying that the character of Jo was someone she idolized, inspiring her to be a writer herself. Gerwig saw themes that other adaptations glossed over, including money, authorship, ownership, art — but mostly money.
After the success of 2017’s Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig was signed on as the director for Little Women. While on the set of Lady Bird, upon hearing that Gerwig had such influence in such an influential movie, Ronan approached her evoking her desperation to play Jo.
In addition to casting Ronan as Jo, Gerwig continued to make major decisions regarding her rebellious protagonist. Upon doing her own research of Louisa May Alcott, she discovered that so much of Jo was pulled from Alcott’s own life, however, the author had to make many compromises as per the pressures of the times. Gerwig wanted to bring more of Alcott into the character that Alcott herself was unable to do. Convinced that the author had never wanted to write a story where Jo got married, Gerwig made a movie that she believed honoured the original creator — a redemptive adaptation — while being faithful to the novel.
Telling the story in a nonlinear fashion, Gerwig began the 2019 adaptation of Little Women with Jo trying to sell her book and ending her story not on the importance of finding a man to marry, but rather the qualities of the sisters, most notably the intelligence of the bratty sister, Amy, played by Florence Pugh.
While the whole cast, including Emma Watson as Meg, Laura Dern as Marmie, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March all received positive reception for their performances as an ensemble, it was Ronan, Pugh, and Timothee Chalamet as Laurie that were deemed stand out performances by the critics.
On Christmas Day 2019, Gerwig’s Little Women, with a budget of $40 million, was released and ended up earning $206 million worldwide. The movie earned six nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading role for Ronan, Best Actress in a Support Role for Pugh, Best Adapted Screenplay for Gerwig, and Best Costume Design, which was the only win of the night.
There was a bitter taste when Gerwig was left off the ballot for Best Director, which many called foul, feeling that Gerwig had done a phenomenal job modernizing the classic and bringing a uniqueness to a story that was so familiar, blending the contemporary and the nostalgia so masterfully that it made the adaptation relevant.
Nevertheless, no one can deny the sustaining power of the story of the four March sisters. While so much of our world has changed since Alcott had written the words, so much remained. We can only imagine what the next twenty to fifty years will bring. How much will change? And how will the next version of Little Women be interpreted? As the readers of Alcotts’ time had wondered what will happen to Jo — we can also do the same… as we look towards the future.
What was your favourite adaptation of Little Women? Let me know in the comments below.
During a college creative writing course, Kevin Kwan wrote a poem entitled “Singapore Bible Study”. The poem was about a study group — but there was more gossiping and showing off new jewelry than studying. A few years later, he began rewriting that poem into a scene. That scene ended up being chapter 2 of Crazy Rich Asians.
It was that chapter that gave Kwan the momentum to write a novel. Yet, it was a story he was brought up to never talk about — at least to avoid sharing with those on the outside. He was unaware of his status. With a wealthy family tree that had roots all the way back to the year 946, Kwan lived a privileged childhood, although not to the extent of those characters in his imagination. And it wasn’t until he moved to America that he understood what luxury he came from.
In 2010, his father passed away — and Kwan felt it was the right time to reconnect with his past. It was perhaps a morbid reason, but Kwan, who was currently working as a creative consultant in New York, didn’t know how much time he (or anyone) would have left.
It was through heartbreak and history that emboldened Kwan to write Crazy Rich Asians — and ignite the flame for Asian American authors and filmmakers for the coming generations. This is how Crazy Rich Asians went from bestseller to blockbuster hit.
Kevin Kwan’s families consisted of three major clans: the Hus, the Ohs, and the Kwans. They had a hand in inventing Tiger Balm, founding Singapore’s oldest bank (the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation), and establishing the Hinghwa Methodist Church. Among many accolades, his paternal grandfather was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his philanthropies. In addition, they lived in some of the grandest homes in Singapore including an estate previously occupied by the sultan of Johor, the ruler of Malaysia.
During this time, wealthy Chinese families were educated in English colleges and universities, and that included Kevin Kwan himself. He studied at the Anglo-Chinese School, and didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and neither did his parents, who worked as an engineer and a pianist.
Kwan’s family was indeed wealthy, but the old money that had been trickling down for generations had mostly dried up by the time Kevin was born. While he was privileged, he was not on the same level as some of the characters in Crazy Rich Asians. Nevertheless, he remembered his home in Singapore when growing up. It was on a hill with a panoramic view. From his bedroom, he could see for miles. Sadly, that estate that housed multiple generations of Kwan’s family no longer exists. As Singapore’s development expanded in the 90s, Kwan’s family home was demolished and four separate homes now occupy the property.
At the age of 11, his family, along with his two older brothers, immigrated to Clear Water, Texas. Kevin Kwan missed many aspects of his Singaporean lifestyle, but there was one key person that he missed the most: his journalist aunt. It was his aunt that invited interesting characters to the house: painters, sculptors, and writers. She also had regular lunches with fascinating people such as royalty, business people, and art collectors. It was she that brought Kevin into that world and opened his imagination.
This perhaps encouraged Kwan to pursue the arts. After graduating from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a BA in Media Studies, Kwan moved to Manhattan and earned a BFA in Photography at Parsons School of Design. Afterward, Kwan was employed by Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and Martha Stewart Living, as well as working at — famous graphic designer, Tibor Kalman’s design firm — M&Co. In 2000, Kwan opened his own creative consulting company which served high-profile clients that included TED, Museum of Modern Arts and The New York Times.
When his father was diagnosed with cancer, Kwan took 18 months off work and returned to Texas to take care of him. He had to drive his father back and forth to daily doctor appointments in Houston. There the two of them spent the time while commuting recounting old family memories and the days back in Singapore. It was during those conversations he realized that there was so much he didn’t know about his family’s history. To contain all his thoughts, explore his ancestry, and mourn his father during that emotional time, Kwan wrote.
He noticed there was a gap in contemporary Asian literature. Most of what he saw on the market involving Asian culture was historical fiction or Asian-American identity. Asia had changed a lot since the 20th century. There has been a lot of financial reports in magazines such as Forbes announcing that there are more billionaires in Asia than anywhere else in the world. While reports may show the numbers, Kwan wanted to show the family aspect, or as he puts it, he wanted to tell the story of the Downton Abbey of Asia
The challenge was to make the story approachable to an American audience. He didn’t think it would be a book people in Asia would be interested in. He said, “They have their own stories, this is old hat for them.” That was how Crazy Rich Asians focused on an Asian American visiting Singapore. Telling the story from the eyes of Rachel Chu, a New York university economics teacher and an Asian outsider allowed him to bridged the gap between worlds. An Asian American may think she knows what she is getting herself into, but she has no idea.
On June 11, 2013, Crazy Rich Asians was published and received overall positive reviews. A New York Times review claims, “Mr. Kwan knows how to deliver guilty pleasures.” Yet, it was not the Asian community that initially embraced the novel, and Kwan somewhat anticipated that. He claimed that Asian Americans were so used to being disappointed by anything portraying their culture that they naturally approached anything as such with suspicion. The title, of course, didn’t help either.
It was the fashion industry and the community in the Upper East Side of Manhattan that became an ambassador for Kwan’s novel. One strategy implemented was to leave copies of Crazy Rich Asians on every seat of the Hampton Jitney, a charter bus service for Manhattanites who don’t have private planes, as Kwan puts it.
Perhaps the most notable promotion for Crazy Rich Asians, was when Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, published an excerpt of the novel in an issue of the magazine. This brought the novel to new heights. Crazy Rich Asians will continue its rise from there. But not without some friction.
As the story was gaining interest in Hollywood, Kwan remembered a movie producer reaching out with a proposal for a movie deal and a request to turn the main character, Rachel into a white girl. Kwan never responded.
That wouldn’t be the only offer for Kwan. The calls began to pour in. One of the first was movie producer and investors of Snapchat, Uber, and Warby Parker, Wendi Deng Murdoch who received an early manuscript from Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter.
Then there was this surreal “beauty contest” day in 2013 that Kwan and his agent remembered well. A creative consultant that worked with Oprah Winfrey and Kate Spade flew them to Los Angeles where they met with executives from major studios such as Fox and Lionsgate.
But in the end, it was producer Nina Jacobson that won over Kwan with her passion and acquired the rights to adapt Crazy Rich Asians into a film.
In 2007, after Jacobson was terminated from her role as president of Disney’s Buena Vista subdivision, she partnered with Brad Simpson to start an independent film studio, Color Force. Up to this point, Color Force’s most notable releases were the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the Hunger Games series, two other literary adaptations.
At first, Jacobson considered financing the movie outside of the American studio system. This would give them the freedom to have an all-Asian cast, but the risk of doing so may cause the movie to fall out of relevancy and be unseen. Luckily, by 2014, Ivanhoe Pictures have signed on with Color Force to fund the picture. Previous productions for Ivanhoe Pictures include: Kite Runner, United 93, and MoneyBall — as well as other foreign pictures from Asia.
President of Ivanhoe Pictures, John Penotti had little doubts about signing on. It was what Ivanhoe Pictures was all about. While other studios were worried about an all-Asian cast, this was the type of movie that he and his organization were eager to make. Greenlit and ready to go with a budget of $30 million, the two studios set off to make North American cinema history.
Screenwriter Peter Chiarelli, known for The Proposal and Now You See Me 2, was hired to script Crazy Rich Asians. He was brought on before a director was hired. It took until May 2016, until the studios entered negotiation with director Jon M. Chu, who had directed the sequel to Step It Up, Jem and the Hologram, and Now You See Me 2, where he worked with Chiarelli.
Incidentally, Chu was loosely mentioned in Kwan’s novel, as Kwan knew Chu’s cousin Vivian and passingly regarded them in the book as the Chu’s of Silicon Valley. But that wasn’t the reason Jon Chu won the job. Chu gave a presentation to Color Force and Ivanhoe Pictures describing his experience as a first-generation Asian-American. His presentation included a picture of himself as a little boy and his family. His dad owned a renowned Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto and as Jacobson recalled, he and his four siblings were all dressed like the Kennedy’s. Identifying as an American but having the visual knowledge of Asia, Chu got the trust of the studios and for the first time as a director felt as though he would be working on a project that will bring his name to the forefront.
One of the first action Chu took once getting the gig as the director was to hire a writer of Asian descent to go over Chiarelli’s script. Adele Lim, Malaysian-American screenwriter, who spent most of her career writing for television, including shows such as Las Vegas, One Tree Hill, and Dynasty, was considered perfect not because of her writing experiences but rather her life experiences: Lim’s parents live in Singapore and her husband is caucasian. Chiarelli was said to have focused the script on the plot while Lim added specific cultural details to the story.
It was this distinction that ended up causing a divide between her and the studio, who were paying Chiarelli significantly more than Lim: at a rate of approximately 8 to 10 times more. The studio claims that the rates are based upon industry standards, which evaluate the experience of the writer. To make an exception for Lim during the negotiation for the Crazy Rich Asians sequels was to set a bad precedent. Lim took it as a slight from the studio, viewing her contribution to be merely “soy sauce” on top of a meal, and declined the partnership with Chiarelli again.
There was indeed something empowering when working on this movie. A Hollywood romantic comedy with an all-Asian cast was the first of its kind, but filling the roles was not easy for Chu. Before casting began, Chu offered up a dream list or what he called “The Avengers of Asian Actors,” included on the list was martial arts legend, Michelle Yeoh most notable for her role in Crutching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; rising star of British television series Humans, Gemma Chan; Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang, Daily Show correspondent, Ronny Chieng; and Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu.
In 2016, Constance Wu auditioned for the role of Rachel. Jon Chu as good as offered the part to her, but due to a scheduling conflict with her television series, Wu was put in a tough position. Contractually, she would have to turn Crazy Rich Asians down. But Wu didn’t give up — how could she? She remembered 10 years of her life waitressing in order to make ends meet. She now played an important role for Asian American actors on television — as Fresh Off the Boat was the first American sitcom with a core Asian cast — and couldn’t simply pass on an opportunity to experience the same impact on cinema.
Wu wrote a letter to Chu expressing her connection to the character of Rachel. “Dates are dates,” she wrote, “and if those are immovable, I understand. But I would put all of my heart, hope, humor, and courage into the role.” Her passion wasn’t ignored by Chu, who would go on and delay production of Crazy Rich Asians by approximately 5 months to April 2017. And with that, the role of Rachel was cast.
Next was to find someone to play the male lead, Nick Young. This was a major challenge for Jon Chu. After looking through all the finalists in a Los Angeles and China audition, he wasn’t able to find someone who could deliver Nick’s British accent as described in the novel. Chu was beginning to feel the pressure, so much so, he decided to launch a social media campaign to not only fill the role of Nick Young but also for all the Asian characters in the story. Candidates from around the world posted a two-minute video audition on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with #CrazyRichAsiansCasting. Thousand of videos were submitted and once again we see that Crazy Rich Asians was a movie that intended to break away from traditions, in an effort to remove the gatekeepers that were holding many Asian actors back.
Perhaps it was this reason that made it so upsetting to many when Malaysian-English actor, Henry Golding was cast in the lead role of Nick. Golding was brought to Chu’s attention by the production company’s accountant: Lisa-Kim Ling Kuan. With minimal experience in the industry and zero Hollywood credit on his resume, all Golding could do was charm Chu with his personality and accent — which he did.
The criticism was simple: for a movie that was claiming to go all-in with an Asian cast, with a critical role, they decided to pull back and fold. To many, Golding was not Asian enough. And it’s fair: Golding was biracial, there was no hiding that. Many felt that casting Golding was simply to make the movie more digestible for an audience that was used to white actors on the screen.
Japanese-English-Argentine actress, Sonoya Mizuno who earned the role as Araminta Lee, would also face the heat for not being full Asian, meanwhile, Korean-born actress, Jamie Chung, who was declined a role in the movie for not being ethnically Chinese made everyone wonder where the line was being drawn.
As hurt as Golding was about all the comments concerning his legitimacy as an Asian, he acknowledge the validity of the criticisms and encourage more conversations around the topic. Whether you agree with the casting or not… whether you think Henry Golding is Asian enough to play the role of Nick Young or not, all Asian actors can agree that it was one small step for Asians; and one giant step for Asian-American cinema. Because of Crazy Rich Asians, many Asian actors are working that wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Much like casting, one of the most pivotal decisions Chu and the studio had to make was regarding the distribution rights. In late 2016, Netflix began aggressively bidding for the worldwide rights to the project, including the sequels. They offered full “creative freedom,” and an upfront seven-figure-minimum payout for all the stakeholders. Such an offer was hard to ignore — because everyone involved would be instant millionaires. But a Netflix exclusive release, would ultimately diminish the impact of the all-Asian movie.
Sure some Netflix movies do get theatrical releases, but since it’s streaming at the same time, few theatres would put it up on screen. In the end, in order to make any cultural impact, Crazy Rich Asians went with Warner Bros. to bring the movie to the theaters.
On August 15, 2018, Crazy Rich Asians was released and grossed $174.5 million in the US and Canada, and $64 million internationally. This ended up being an incredibly profitable gamble for the studios. However, the reception from the Chinese audience was lackluster, much to the disappointment of Warner Bros. The Chinese didn’t find novelty in seeing Asians on screen, they watch Chinese dominated entertainment all the time. Additionally, the plot surrounding those with excess was off-putting to many movie-goers in China.
Then there were the critics, who were not all on the same page. While many celebrated the film for making history, for being visually appealing with its glitz and glamour, and for stand-out performances from Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong; and rapper-turned-actress, Awkwafina — others had problems with the movie.
Some said it was a cliche North American rom-com with all the same tropes and archetypal characters. It wasn’t bad per se, but it’s about as revolutionary as 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Then there were those that felt the movie didn’t help the Asian reputation, stating that the movie, right from the title, reinforces the stereotype that “Asians are rich, vulgar and clueless.”
Lastly, others deemed Crazy Rich Asians to have committed the ultimate sin. Hypocrisy. With a story that was meant to bridge racial divides, the movie might have done otherwise simply for some laughs. Singapore is an ethnically diverse country with not only those of Chinese descent, but also those from Malaysia, India, and many more regions of the world. In the scene where Rachel and Peik Lin arrive at the mansion, they get frightened by some Sikh security guards. This scene has no explanation and was a clear glossing over of a troubled racial political climate in the country, where Indians are marginalized. In the novel, the guards are described as some of the finest warriors in the world, but in the movie, they were relegated to comic relief at best.
It might not have been a grand slam, but it was at least a triple with two runs batted in. Crazy Rich Asians did a lot right. For one, it increased tourism to Singapore, particularly to a few on-screen locations including the Marina Bay Sands and Raffles Hotel. Next, it increased book sales for Kwan’s novel by over 300% in 2018 after the release of the movie. And lastly, since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club based on the novel by Amy Tan, there hasn’t been a modern movie with an ensemble Asian cast that captured the attention of the North American public.
The adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians happened at the perfect time during a cultural shift. What the world needs now are more Asian artists in all fields to feed off the spark that had been ignited. Unlike The Joy Luck Club, Asian creators cannot wait another 25 years for another at-bat. As race continues to be a hot button in Hollywood and the rest of the world is eager and watching, Asian artists need to bring everything they have to the table, because whether others agree or not, they are now in the game thanks to Crazy Rich Asians. However, the question remains: Is Crazy Rich Asians a trial blazing movie? Or is it an outlier?
What are your thoughts on the cultural merits of Crazy Rich Asians? Do you think it helped the public perception of an all-Asian cast? Or was it just another cookie-cutter movie, albeit a fortune cookie? Let me know in the comments below.
Read a lot and write a lot. That is the hot tip established writers will tell aspiring writers. Except, how do you balance the two? Should you split your reading and writing time 50/50?
So here’s the dilemma, you have this idea for a novel… but you also have that book over there that you want to read. What would be more valuable for your time? Reading? Or Writing?
This is a problem I have because my TBR list keeps growing and so does my list of story ideas… I’m known for biting off more than I can chew. Nevertheless, here is how I approach balancing reading and writing.
I like to think of it in the same way as exercising and dieting.
Ask yourself, what is your goal? Is your goal to finish writing a novel or submit to a writing contest? If so, then prioritize writing. Or is your goal to more intuitive? For example, if you want to write a blog that requires you to make commentary, then perhaps you need to read more to be perceptive.
Just like your physical health where you have to decide whether you are losing weight or gaining muscle, you need to start aligning your reading/writing habits to meet those goals. If you want to lose weight, you wouldn’t just be working out and if you want to gain muscle you wouldn’t just be eating salads.
First, figure out your goals and then slowly design a routine that enables you to write and read in order to meet it.
Reading is the healthy food you eat. TV or surfing the Internet or playing video games are less-than-healthy food when you are trying to be a writer. You can have your cheat days, but on most writing days, you need to refuel with a book.
So the two activities have to work together. It doesn’t have to be a perfect 50/50 balance. You can write more and read less one day and then read more and write less another. The key is to cut out all the other activities that don’t nourish you or doesn’t motivate you to write.
When you wake up: write, when you are on lunch break: read, when you get home from work: write, before you go to bed: read. Find little pockets of time here and there to commit to becoming a better writer.
Drain the well and then refill it. Exercise and then eat a hearty meal. Don’t think of your reading time as time you should be writing, but rather a necessary part of the writing process. You only have 24 hours in the day, so it’s not about picking one or the other, it’s about eliminating the other activities so you have more time to read AND write.
I like to read a few different books at the same time. I find it helps me motivated to read more and it generally inspires me to write a lot.
Don’t get too distracted, but here is my YouTube channel filled with writing inspirations and ideas to help with your creative process. Check it out!
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What would you do after a publisher rejects your novel for being too disturbing? Well, if you’re Chuck Palahniuk, you would write something even more disturbing and submit it.
While working at Freightliner, a truck company, as a diesel mechanic, Palahniuk regularly carried a notepad with him while he worked. In addition to the details about fixing vehicles, the book also contained snippets of Palahniuk’s first published novel: Fight Club.
Fight Club placed a mirror in front of the concept of masculinity during the 1990s, where males instead of being sent off to wars and take up arms in defense of something worth fighting for — were encouraged to take on cushy jobs and embrace commercialism. With nothing motivating men to step out of their comfort zone, they became caged animals, tamed… but still with feral instincts.
Palahniuk’s story acknowledges the men’s movement and how every man is battling forces from two sides: one to abide by societal rules and one to break it.
Yet without the adaptation, the story of Fight Club and the influence it would have on young men of that generation wouldn’t have materialized. Today, we’ll explore the story of Fight Club and how it went from Chuck Palahniuck’s debut novel into the cult classic it is today… and how it has continued to stay relevant after 20 years. Let’s talk about Fight Club.
Palahniuk began writing fiction in his early 30s, after attending workshops led by American writer, Tom Spanbauer. It all began as an attempt to meet new friends, but he ended up getting inspired by the fiction form and Spanbauer encouraged him to perfect his minimalistic writing style.
Tom Spanbauer describes his teaching style as “dangerous writing”, saying on his website description:
I must listen for the heartbreak, the rage, the shame, the fear that is hidden within the words. Then I must respect where each individual student is in relation to his or her broken heart and act accordingly. when my relationship with the student is solid, and when the student has a strong foothold in his or her writing, I bring out my jungle red fingernails, play the devil’s advocate, be the bad cop, the irreverent fool–whatever it takes to teach perseverance, self-trust, and discipline.
With that Palahniuck pursued his craft head-on while holding a day job where he found time to write during work, at the laundromat, at the gym, and while waiting for his 1985 Toyota pickup truck at the shop.
Invisible Monster, originally titled “Manifesto” was the first novel Palahniuk tried to get published… years before Fight Club. It was shot down because the publishers didn’t have an appetite for a story about a disfigured model with multiple identities. Powered by indignant persistence, Palahniuk set off to write a novel even further from the norm.
During a camping trip, Palahniuk was involved in an altercation that left him bruised and swollen. Upon returning to work, he realized that none of his co-workers acknowledged his visible injuries or showed any interest in his personal life. That indifference from others was the spark for Fight Club.
Fight Club’s Project Mayhem is loosely based on The Cacophony Society, where members are self-designated and gatherings are randomly pitched and sponsored. These events usually involve costumes and pranks, as well as venturing into areas that are restricted. Palahniuk is a member — and was a victim of a prank once when the members of the Cacophony Society showed up during one of his readings in San Francisco.
On August 17, 1996, Fight Club was published. It was a positive reception and won Palahniuk the 1997 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Oregon Book Award for Best Novel. Critics praised Palahniuk for his unique writing style: caustic, outrageous, funny, violent, and unsettling. However, others found issues in the novel’s heteronormative themes and the violent aspects of the plot. Yet even with the publicity, the hardcovers for Fight Club didn’t perform greatly in sales with only 5,000 copies sold.
In the rerelease of Fight Club in 1999 and 2004, Palahniuk says that all he did was update The Great Gatsby. He describes the two stories as apostolic fiction, where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero. In both tales there are two male characters and one female — and in the end, the hero dies.
Even though the book didn’t make it onto any top sellers list at the start, a copy of the novel made it to movie producers Ross Grayson Bell and Joshua Donen. Bell remembered reading the novel and getting to the twist in the story, which caused him to reassess everything he just read. He stayed up all night, too excited to sleep. He was about to produce his first feature film, but to affirm what he felt about Fight Club, he hired a group of actors to read the book out loud, restructuring it and cutting out the excess in the novel that couldn’t be presented in a film.
Bell recorded the reading and shared it with 20th Century Fox producer, Laura Ziskin, who produced such films as Pretty Woman, What About Bob?, and As Good As It Gets. During a drive to Santa Barbara, Ziskin listened to the recording that Bell shared. As the current executive of the mid-budget division of 20th Century Fox, Ziskin saw potential in the story of Fight Club — she herself was uncertain of how to approach it, but she was confident that Bell was the one to lead it and hired him as the producer.
The film rights for Fight Club was optioned for $10,000 and the adaptation process was on its way. Bell first sent the novel to up-and-coming director, David O. Russell, who was looking for his next project after releasing Flirting with Disaster in 1996. Unfortunately — or fortunately — Russell didn’t understand what the story was about and declined the offer. Later, Russell will admit that he obviously didn’t do a good job reading it.
The manuscript made its way around town and got rejected from directors such as Buck Henry who directed The Graduate, Peter Jackson who directed The Frighteners, Bryan Singer who directed The Usual Suspects, and Danny Boyle who directed Trainspotting. Because of this lack of interest, the manuscript got a bad reputation.
David Fincher, on the other hand, was attracted to the story at once. Coming off of projects such as Se7en and The Game, Fincher was establishing himself as a director who can apply a unique visual style to a story with an edgy theme. While his movies to this point were hits and misses: Se7en: a hit; The Game: a miss. He had come a long way from his days of directing music videos, some notable ones including Rolling Stones, Madonna, and Aerosmith.
Fight Club attracted Fincher for many reasons, but it was the relatability to Palahniuk’s story that really moved him. Fincher himself was a man in his late thirties and he recognized the same anger evoked in the novel, where a certain breed of men was unable to evolve at the speed society required them to.
Nevertheless, there was some hesitation for Fincher to sign on with 20th Century Fox. In 1990, Alien3 was in pre-production and things were not going well for franchise producers David Giler and Walter Hill and director, Vincent Ward. Due to creative differences, Ward would end up being fired — and Alien3, a movie with a $56 million budget and an unfinished script was now without a director.
In comes 28-year-old David Fincher to save the blockbuster movie. Giler and Hill found Fincher through his music video credits, specifically Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” and hired him for his feature directorial debut. Yet, it wasn’t so much as saving the movie for Fincher, as it was surviving it. With no history as a movie director to back up his experience on set, he became a puppet for the production company. Even as an avid fan of the original Alien directed by Ridley Scott, and even having a cohesive story that linked everything together, the studio refused to budge and Alien3 became a piece of cinema devoid of key decisions from the director. Fincher was not proud of the result and he was not happy with his experience working with 20th Century Fox.
It took Fincher three years to recover and at many points, he felt as though his career as a feature film director was over.
However, 20th Century Fox opened the door to Fincher when he came knocking about Fight Club. Fincher saw the movie heading in two directions and gave the studio the options: 1) Fight Club could be a low-budget straight to videotape movie or 2) it could be one with a big budget and big stars. Obviously, he had very little interest in making a low-budget movie, but since Alien3, he had learned a few tricks and used it to negotiate. The studio didn’t buy in at once but were intrigued enough to give Fincher a chance.
Screenwriter, Jim Uhls had been working on adapting the story of Fight Club from the beginning. He received the manuscript about the same time Fincher did from someone he knew who worked for a production company. He was told that every studio in Hollywood had already passed on it. Uhls was blown away by the story and even though he felt that it could never be made into a movie, he thought it would be a great achievement to be paid to adapt it, so he began to write.
The story was deemed unadaptable by many — as the novel was essentially a long monologue. Where Uhls made a difference was building the scenes around those key moments inside the narrator’s head. Slowly Uhls began to gain some interest around 20th Century Fox, but what sealed it was his attendance at a large lunch meeting with the executives and David Fincher. Uhls sat strategically next to Fincher, who was somewhere between an acquaintance and a friend. It was there during the lunch meeting where the two talked about Fight Club and the obstacles of making it into a film, but it was more than a conversation and Uhls knew it: he was there to pitch himself.
Much like how Fight Club was Chuck Palahniuk’s first credit as a novelist, the adaptation was Jim Uhls’s first credit as a screenwriter.
During the late 90s, voice-overs have gotten a reputation as being a trite and uninspired technique to deliver exposition in a movie and many studios wanted to avoid it. However, Fincher recognized that the story hinged on the internal dialogue of the narrator. Without it, it would be a depressing story — and that was not what he was going for. It took Uhls and Fincher seven months to complete the script and still it required help from director, Cameron Crowe and screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker.
During the casting process, producer Ross Bell had Russell Crowe in mind for the role of Tyler Durden, but it was producer Art Linson that began conversations with Brad Pitt. Having already worked with Fincher in Se7en and the studio’s desire to add a bankable star as the lead, Pitt signed on, hoping to wash the dismal failure of Meet Joe Black away.
There were a lot of options on the market for someone to play the unnamed narrator: Sean Penn or Matt Damon were top contenders, but it was Edward Norton that won the role with his aligned vision with Fincher. Both Fincher and Norton saw the film as a satire — it was not an action movie, it was a comedy. And Fincher knew that Norton could give the type of “wink wink” comedic performance required having seen him in his previous role in The People vs Larry Flynt.
Once cast, the two leading men took lessons in various martial arts, including boxing, tae kwon do, and grappling. Additionally, they took a course in soap making.
Fincher wanted to cast comedian Janeane Garofalo as the role of Marla Singer, but she declined due to the sexual aspects of the film. Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, and Reese Witherspoon were up for consideration as well, but in the end, Fincher went with Helena Bodham Carter because of her role in the 1997 romantic comedy, The Wing of the Dove.
In 138 days, filming was completed, but not without hiccups. The movie was budgeted for $23 million and ended up costing $63 million. There were threats made by the executives from the partnering studio, New Regency, for Fincher to reduce the cost, but he refused. It was only when the executives saw the dailies during a three-week span that they were convinced that it was money worth spending.
It took over 1500 rolls of film, three times more than the Hollywood average, to capture principal photography. David Fincher affirmed his reputation as a director who liked to shoot many takes.
While the movie was shot predominantly in California, there ended up being over 200 locations, in addition to over 70 sets. For a movie with only 300 hundred scenes, this was a lot. Fincher didn’t enjoy this aspect of the process and remedied it in his next movie, Panic Room in 2002, which was shot predominantly in one location.
There were disagreements on many fronts on how to properly market Fight Club. The studio at first wanted to market it as an art film, geared towards a male audience because of its violence. Yet, when you have Brad Pitt as a star, it’s hard to not push him to the front of all your publicity material, however, Fincher resisted against that. Instead, he decided to film two fake public service announcements presented by the two lead characters. The studios were not thrilled with that creative stint and instead spent $20 million to create materials that highlighted the movie’s fight scenes, buying ad time during viewing events dominated by the male demographic such as WWE.
On April 20, 1999, two students at Columbine High School entered their school and murdered 12 people before turning the guns on themselves. This incident rippled through the entertainment industry and the studio — claiming it wanted to avoid competing with the summer blockbusters — pushed the release of the film from July 1999 to October 15, 1999.
The job of promoting the film was no easier for the actors. As Brad Pitt and Edward Norton did their circuit, they discovered the difficulty of explaining the movie without giving away the key parts. None of the marketing efforts properly communicated what Fight Club was, and most who initially went to see it in theatres expected to see a film about fighting.
Fight Club bombed at the box office, earning only $37 million in domestic gross and $100.8 million worldwide. Fincher left LA to Bali during the opening weekend to escape the inevitable negativity and recalibrate his life.
Yet, the movie’s failure didn’t banish it to obscurity like so many others. Word of mouth started to spread, a cult following was established, and in an age of growing sensitivity, real fight clubs were formed. Across America, from universities to the tech industry, from gentleman clubs to gathering of pre-teens, people were getting together to throw punches. Many of which were filmed and leaked online — thus breaking the number one rule and leading to arrests. On top of that, these gatherings began partaking in terrorist activities such as bombing attempts. Fight Club had reached critical mass and achieved longevity in many home entertainment collections, selling more than 6 million copies on DVD and VHS its first decade.
While today, Fight Club is deemed to be Palahniuk’s and Fincher’s masterpieces, it’s said to continue to do damage as a cultural influencer of violence. In a world so politically separated, is this the sort of entertainment that encourages those with a lack of power to take matters into their own hands, often leading to dangerous results?
One group that have latched onto Fight Club as their bible, is the incels, a collection of bitter violent men who harbor resentment because of their involuntary celibacy. The most recognized member is Elliot Rodgers, who in 2014, went on a killing spree at the University of California. When asked about the situation in an interview with the Guardian, Palahniuk stated, “the extremes always go away,” comparing the incels to radical feminist, Valerie Jean Solanas, who attempted to murderer pop artist, Andy Warhol in 1968.
In a society many deemed to be getting overly sensitive, a term coined by the novel may best represent the toxicity that the story leaves behind. The term is “snowflake,” an insult now commonly associated with the alt-right movement, usually directed at the liberals and their inflated entitlement and sensitivity.
20 years after the release of the movie, the message of Fight Club is as relevant as ever, but many of us are moving towards a more progressive viewpoint and want to put Fight Club behind us. Some now even deem it to be an example of a two-hour-long mansplaining episode and that it is nothing more than a childish representation of past. Albeit, we must recall what Fight Club was intended to be… it was not propaganda, it was satire. How it’ll be received in the decades to come? Only time will tell.
Fight Club is a story of pent up rage, a clenched fist held too long and must be thrown. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen if we don’t find ways to release the anger in a peaceful manner. Fight Club is not condoning violence, it’s supporting all the other means of expression that isn’t violent, such as peaceful protest.
After watching the film, Chuck Palahniuk went on to say that he believes the movie was an improvement on the book. Perhaps he saw what Fincher did…
Many changes were made during adaptation, but perhaps the most notable is the ending. In the novel, the narrator wakes up surrounded by the members of Project Mayhem in a mental hospital after shooting himself. While in the movie, the narrator and Marla mend their relationship just in time to watch the city below crumble. The novel ends with the impending return of chaos that is Tyler Durden, while the movie ends with a new beginning — a new life with Marla.
Which version did you prefer? And what are your thoughts on the impact of Fight Club in today’s society? Is it dangerous? Let me know in the comments below.
In a fantastical world where time travel is a reality, Time Traveller Magazine is the go-to source for the best non-linear time travelling and vacationing content.
The Time Traveller Magazine was conceived as a school project for my professional writing program at Douglas College in 2013. It was arguably the assignment I was most passionate about. Time Traveller Magazine offered me an opportunity to stretch my imagination and experiment with publishing and design tasks that I would have otherwise removed myself from in normal settings. Coming from a hands-on filmmaking background, working on this magazine brought me back to my hankering for visual editing. I worried less about vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structures and focused more on the layout, the images, and the storytelling techniques that didn’t involve words necessarily. It was a rewarding experience and I am happy to share it with you all today.
In late 2013, I had an opportunity to work with Jeff Allen, Dana Renaud and Maggie Clark, as well as the talented Cody Klyne, in bringing to life an idea I had stowed away in my head for many years. For that I say, thank you.
When you produce content regularly, not every piece of work stands out. Time passes and some fade away without any recollection—in fact, sometimes I don’t remember writing a piece at all when I reread it over the course of a couple months. I don’t think I’ll have to worry about forgetting ROFL Cat anytime soon… it is a project I can genuinely say I’m proud of. Not just because it was an idea that sat passively and patiently with me for so long (ideas are known to vanish before I get a chance to write it down), but also because those that contributed to the book did such an amazing job. I’m sure my pride for it is justified.
If you have not seen the works of Avery Monsen and Jory John, search them up. They are authors of the hilarious illustrated series All Your Friends Are Dead and K Is For Knifeball: An Alphabet of Terrible Advice. Those hardcover children’s book with adult humour was what I wanted ROFL Cat to be like: funny, in an adorable and rude kind of way.
Since the book is produced as a part of my professional writing program at Douglas College, we were offered limited printing. I would love for everyone to have a copy of ROFL Cat on the coffee table and bookshelf, but that simply doesn’t seem possible at the moment, as the demand is quite low—that being said, I still want to share it.
Here is the product of a bunch of talented people working together on one of my silly ideas:
Some people get second chances, but Constable Seth Southgate and Van Vuong are much luckier, they’ve got many more—unfortunately chances aren’t privileges, they aren’t measurable, and they aren’t always acknowledged. From a hospital bed and a prison cell, the two men face the repercussions of their choices, recall the chances they received, and wonder when the trigger was pulled and their fortunes faded.
Origin of the book:
In 2010, I didn’t have much going on. I bounced around different jobs, while still trying to hang on to some hope of becoming an actor/director. As I waited for Hollywood to call, I did a lot of writing and developed a love for it—a love that didn’t leave me feeling jilted, unlike my love for film. I entered the 3-Day Writing Contest to motivate myself to write something, just to get it done from beginning to end. Well, I did it—and I left it on the shelf for 3 years. Why I abandoned it for so long, I don’t know, but I do know that I don’t believe in building a boat and never sailing it. So here it is now: The Past in Between is a novel about second chances… which is fitting, because I gave it a second chance to be read, just like how writing offered me a second chance to create artistically, in addition to making a living and pursuing a passion. It really is nice looking back sometimes and seeing where I’ve come from. This book allowed me to do that. Now let’s look forward.