Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book 17: Memoirs of a Geisha

When a novel is adapted into a film, I almost invariably find the written version more appealing.  It might just be one of those elitist things that comes with the territory of being a longtime book-lover; you somehow always come to believe that your imagination is more accurate and on-point than the other guy's.

However, through pretty much no fault of its own, Memoirs of a Geisha as a novel is, in my books (ha ha ha, puns!), surpassed by the silver screen's version.  I think a lot of this has to do with the way the movie adeptly brings to life all the colors and sounds of the world that Golden strives to portray in his writing.  John Williams' arrestingly lovely accompanying score doesn't hurt either.  In any case, the novel is significantly improved upon in the film, which I find to be a good thing.  After all, isn't that why screen adaptations of books are made in the first place?  (And that noise you hear is Hollywood responding with a resounding "NO".  Clearly.)

At its core, Memoirs is a novel about overcoming adversity.  It tells the story of one geisha's dogged pursuit of love and happiness in the face of career challenges, political turmoil, and bitter rivalries.  Narrated from the perspective of retired geisha Nitta Sayuri, Memoirs paints an elegant picture of the colorful, separate reality--the "flower and willow world"--in which geisha once lived and worked.  It was the imagery that drew me in most of all; Golden's descriptions of the settings and costumes are vivid and arresting.  I found myself reading late into the night, just to get a "glimpse" of another one of Sayuri's kimono.  I've always been fascinated by Japanese culture, and Memoirs of a Geisha definitely fed that fascination.  

The novel also impressed me because it read like an actual memoir.  It is written in such a manner that it is easy to forget that it is, in fact, a work of fiction.  The book even begins with a (fictional) note from the translator.  For the five days it took me to read this book (which makes it a quick read, considering the fact that I'm a full-time student), I was absolutely ensnared by the world that Golden creates with his prose.  

That being said, the book definitely has its flaws.  While Memoirs is a good introduction into certain concepts within Japanese culture and the geisha subculture, it is clearly a novel written by an American.  Rather than being introduced and incorporated subtly, many of the cultural elements are addressed with a heavy-handedness that is sometimes jarring.  It is clear in these instances that Golden is trying to prove that he did his research.  He works hard to capture a Japanese "voice", and it's sort of hit-or-miss throughout the novel.  The characters were also kind of flat to me.  Even Sayuri, in spite of being the protagonist, is generally lacking in depth and definition.  

I do in some respects feel like the movie did it better; the characters are more real, and even the plot was executed more capably in the film than it was in the novel.  The screenwriters made changes to the plot that even I, as a purist when it comes to film adaptations, approve of.  The changes heightened the drama and improved the pacing, and these are changes which I wish Golden's editor would have made.

In any case, Memoirs of a Geisha is a fine book and a fine film.  While both provide a relatively good primer on Eastern culture and philosophy, they are both works of historical fiction, and this is a fact that is important to take into account.  As long as readers/viewers keep this in mind and don't try to take Memoirs at anything more than its face value, they will enjoy and benefit from their experience.  

Grade:  B+
Rating:  13 and up, for some (relatively vague) sexual content