Note: It’s been a while! I work a full-time job, and there’s been some very positive, very exciting personal stuff going on. Once things calm down, I’ll get back into reading, researching, and writing in earnest again. Thanks for your patience and support! – Jenni
“Night. Half moon. An occasional hoot from an owl.” And on screen – a dark blue sky, a single cloud hanging over a crescent moon, and the hoot of an owl in the distance.
Ken Liu’s short story Good Hunting and the Love Death and Robots short film of the same name (hereafter referred to as Good Hunting LDR or just LDR ) start the same way, follow the same characters, and hit the same narrative beats. The main characters, Liang, the demon-hunter, and Yan, the shapeshifting hulijing, both start in rural China. But as magic drains from the area with the arrival of the railway, both of them move to colonial, industrial Hong Kong. Liang becomes an engineer, working with engines and then automata; Yan loses her fox form and becomes a prostitute and then – against her will – a cyborg and a sex toy. The short story and short film both end with Liang empowering Yan by remaking her into a chrome fox, as beautiful and deadly as her old self.
Liu’s steampunk Hong Kong is drawn to life in Red Dog Culture House’s adaptation – “the great metropolis,” rarely described in his short story, is rendered in rich greens and golds, huffing and puffing with life both organic and mechanical. Some plot points are lost, some characters jettisoned, but overall, the short film is a decent adaptation of Liu’s original story.
Or is it? In her great essay on Popmatters.com, Lydia Hansen writes that the Netflix film fails to capture the themes of female empowerment that Liu writes into his story. She argues that the male gaze of the film “gravitates towards graphic nudity and fails to make the jump from objectifying to uplifting the human body.” Yan is treated like a sex object and robbed of the decisions that give her power in Liu’s narrative. For example, in the short story, she designs her new body herself. But in LDR, she is in the background, drinking tea. As Hansen notes, she is strangely passive: “At a moment when she should be most in control of what’s happening to her body, she’s sitting back and letting a male character make the decisions for her.”
Hansen’s essay is an excellent dissection of all the small ways that the Netflix adaptation undermines Liu’s original theme of female empowerment. I won’t rehash her argument – you can read it here – but it did get me thinking about adaptation.
In an interview with Hannes Rall, film critic and animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi notes that “the history of cinema in itself is a history of adaptation.” (2019: 11) And of course, the same is true for animation. The first European animated film, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, was adapted from 1001 Arabian Nights. More recently, Laika’s stop motion film Coraline was adapted from much slimmer novella of the same name by Neil Gaiman. And Disney’s oeuvre finds inspiration in the stories of Hans Christian Andersen (The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid), Shakespeare (Hamlet) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan of the Apes) to name a few. In general, adaptation is “a dominant cultural phenomenon.” (James 2018: 90)
But talking about adaptation is difficult, because the line of conversation we naturally indulge in – is the adaptation good? – is anathema to the formal study of adaptations. Fidelity between the original text and adaptation is frowned upon; as Dudley Andrew writes, “the leading academic trend has ignored or disparaged this concern with fidelity, finding the vertical line that anchors a film to its literary substrate exasperating and constraining.” (2011: 27)
Instead, formal scholars focus on the “horizontal” impacts of the text (Andrew 2011: 28) They look at when adaptations were produced, why they re-emerged, what effect they had on culture and society; they treat each half of the process as separate entities.
But some authors in other fields – like aesthetics, or general media studies – argue differently. Paisley Livingston’s essay, ‘On the Appreciation of Cinematic Adaptations’ notes that adaptations are not divorced from their source material; rather, it’s encoded in them. Summarising Livingston’s essay, Harold James writes: “Adaptations are intentionally related to their sources; so critical studies of adaptations must compare the two, asking in what sense and to what extent the adaption is faithful to the source.” (2018: 91)
Livingston explains that fidelity is always relevant, but shouldn’t be prioritised over other, more fruitful lines of inquiry. It’s only useful if it’s used correctly: “when the question of fidelity targets specific types of qualities or features, it may be possible to provide a well-justified and accurate response corresponding to the specific sort of interest that motivated the question in the first place.” (2010: 96) Otherwise, he notes, it’s like comparing apples and oranges, “where multiple and divergent, interest-relative comparisons between any two items are possible” – an understandably frustrating endeavour. (2010: 96)
James builds on Livingston’s argument, dividing fidelity into two distinct categories: story fidelity and thematic fidelity. Story fidelity, he argues, is relatively easy; just keep the same plot points and the same characters. But thematic fidelity – capturing the themes and intention of the author – is much harder. It requires both a deep understanding of the original text and mastery of the adapter’s chosen medium, as James demonstrates with his example of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. In the original novel, Patricia Highsmith uses literary techniques like free indirect discourse to express the novel’s key themes of duplicity and betrayal. But Hitchcock needs to rely on cinematic techniques to make the same points. Therefore, argues James, “transposing a theme from one medium to another is never an obvious or straightforward matter.” (2018: 98)
Good Hunting LDR has story fidelity but, as Lydia Hansen demonstrates, it fails miserably at capturing the themes of the original short story. In a blog post, Liu explains that he wanted to “turn misogynistic hulijing legends upside down” by questioning the narrative that the hulijing “is a dangerous feminine creature who uses her sexuality to deprive men of their vitality and essence.” Hansen’s essay goes into detail on how this theme is woven through the text, in the plot points and the actions, but also the minutiae of who speaks to who and who makes decisions.
But the Netflix show fails to translate this across mediums. The literary techniques Liu uses to empower Yan are gone; in their place is a lazy return to the male gaze, which focuses on Yan’s naked body above everything else. The camera lingers on close-ups of her metallic breasts, and some shots – from camera angle to performance – are deeply suggestive and frankly uncomfortable.
And Liu’s other intended theme doesn’t fare much better. In the same post, Liu says that his story has “an anti-colonial theme,” an attempt on his part to write fantasy that “addresses the dark stain of colonialism in a satisfactory way.” In Liu’s short story, this is done in part through vignettes showing the cruelty of the British colonisers and the power – and comfort – of Chinese traditions. In one short scene, a British engineer overseeing the building of a railway silences the requests of a Chinese townsperson by breaking a statue of Buddha. “You worship statues of mud,” he snaps, “when you should be thinking about building roads from iron and weapons from steel.” The incident shows the foreigner’s arrogance, his inability to listen or collaborate, and his deep contempt for Chinese spiritualism. At this point, the reader knows that spirits like the hulijing exist; the Englishman’s insistence that it is backwards thinking is plainly wrong. But it doesn’t matter – might, we are shown, is right.
But this scene is stripped from the film. So is the suicide of Liang’s father, who kills himself when the railroad sucks magic from the world. And so is the gentle scene where Liang and Yan, reunited in Hong Kong, sit at the harbour, eat Chinese dumplings, and celebrate the Ghost Festival. Without these vignettes, the short film feels needlessly interested in revenge and sex.
But we shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed that Good Hunting LDR misses the themes that the story expresses so well. Love Death and Robots wears its NSFW status proudly, like a badge of honour. Almost all its stories feature nudity, sex, death, violence, gore. Where Liu wanted his short story to redress misogynistic legends and show the reality of colonisation, the team at Red Dog Culture House wanted something that worked with the rest of anthology, something that screamed ‘adult animation’ and not much else. And even though it’s not to my taste, and I mourn what the film could have been, maybe that’s ok.
Bendazzi, in his interview with Hannes Rall, notes that adaptation is always for the viewer: “You take an idea, you remake it for the taste of the audience, be it European or Northern American, or both, and you create a new thing.” (2019: 12) The Love Death and Robots team moulded Liu’s story like clay into something that would appeal to their intended audience – not inherently better or worse than the original short story, just different. That difference strips away key themes and may leave a bad taste in the mouth for fans of Liu, but it’s also made the short film one of the highest rated Love Death and Robots episodes on IMDb. People love it for its setting and its story, and its uncomplicated, familiar relationship with trope and genre. One viewer, zdflanders, gives it 10/10, and compares Yan to Wolverine – “an epic vigilante.”
The nuance of Yan’s story may have been lost in translation, but Good Hunting LDR still does what it set out to do – keep people watching. Its ‘failures’ – not having thematic fidelity, treating Yan like a sex object, losing important scenes – are successes if we reframe the question from “Is this a good adaptation?” to “Is this a good adaptation in context?” The vertical line from Good Hunting to Good Hunting LDR zigs and zags and breaks; but the horizontal line, from the film to its neighbours, holds true.
Good Hunting LDR is not any better or worse than the short story. Both appeal to different audiences and sensibilities, hitting different notes even if they march to the same beat. The film adaptation of Good Hunting that Hansen wants to see – that I want to see – wouldn’t have been in Love Death and Robots. Liu’s short story is not sexy enough, not gory enough, not flashy enough. Good Hunting was adapted to be exactly what it needed to be – for better, or for worse.
Andrew, Dudley. 2011. ‘The Economies of Adaptation,’ True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity, ed. Colin McCabe (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 27-40
Hansen, Lydia. 6 May 2020. ‘Where’s the Strong Women in Netflix’s Adaptation of ‘Good Hunting’?’ PopMatters <https://www.popmatters.com/wheres-the-strong-woman-in-netflixs-good-hunting-2645933544.html>
Liu, Ken. 8 November 2012. ‘Story Notes: “Good Hunting” in Strange Horizons,’ Ken Liu – Writer, <https://kenliu.name/blog/2012/11/08/story-notes-good-hunting-in-strange-horizons/>
Rall, Hannes. 2019. “’It is the world, which is within the head of the artist:” A Closer Look at the history of Animated Adaptations,” An Interview with Giannalberto Bendazzi,’ Adaptation for Animation: Transforming Literature Frame by Frame (CRC Press: London) pp. 10-33
Harold, James. 2018. ‘The Value of Fidelity in Adaptation,’ The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 58.1: 89-100
Livingston, Paisley. 2010. ‘On the appreciation of cinematic adaptation,’ Projections, Vol 4.2: 104-127.
Zdflanders. 30 March 2019. ‘NOT FOR EVERYONE,’ IMDb <https://www.imdb.com/review/rw4753013/?ref_=tt_urv>
Thomas, Oliver (dir.) 2019. ‘Good Hunting,’ Love Death and Robots. Season 1, episode 8 [TV Series Episode] (Red Dog Culture House, Blur Productions, and Netflix Studios)
“Good Hunting” is set in Hong Kong during the height of European imperialism. Both Ken Liu's story and the 2019 Netflix adaption follow the transformation of Yan, a huli jing or shapeshifting spirit with fox and human shapes.What is the main theme of good hunting? ›
“Good Hunting” is the story of a son of a demon hunter (Liang) who becomes friends with the daughter of a demon (Yan). Their tale, however, is less magical and more centered around how colonized people survive and adapt to colonization and how it affects them as a whole.What is good hunting based on? ›
Based on the short story by Ken Liu, we follow the journey of Liang, a Chinese spirit hunter, whose views on the supernatural are forever changed when he falls in love with a huli jing (fox-woman).What is swallow tail in good hunting? ›
In his hand was Swallow Tail, a sword that had first been forged by our ancestor, General Lau Yip, thirteen generations ago. The sword was charged with hundreds of Daoist blessings and had drunk the blood of countless demons.What is the conflict of the story Good Hunting? ›
Therefore, by offering elements of estrangement and familiarizing the reader with them, the author emphasizes the main conflict behind the story: the opposition of people and nature.What is the conflict in Good Hunting? ›
The Central Conflict: Will vs. his ability to open up to Sean and Skylar. Professor Lambeau begins pushing Will to go to interviews. False Goal: Get to know Skylar.