Critique of the 1988 Film Series Adaptation of The Story of the Stone

EALC 520, Second Paper, Vered Arnon

The 1988 adaptation of Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone for television resulted in a soap opera style film series. It seems to have been made with a specific audience in mind, targeting the middle class who had just gotten television and wanted to be dazzled and enthralled by beautiful upper-class things, much like the original audience of the books.

The film series is elaborate, extravagant, and melodramatic. The camera shots focus on food and set and costumes more than anything else. This is done by a lot of zooming and panning, as if the camera is not just lingering on things for an effect, but trying to fit as many visually stimulating things into each shot as possible. The result is that the cinematography seems amateurish, busy, and sometimes confusing. The camera angles are sloppy, lacking direct focus, often cutting off halves of people’s faces when those people shouldn’t even be in the shot at all. This reflects of course the datedness of the film series. It was made when China’s film industry was still very young and advanced techniques hadn’t been acquired to the point that finesse of style would be possible.

The acting is very melodramatic. It seems fake and contrived. While much of the dialogue is taken word for word from the books, the lines delivered on screen seem fake and contrived. The film industry was still young, the distinctions between theatrical style and television screen style had not been resolved yet. The actors seem like they are putting on a show for the audience. And that is exactly what they are doing. The production is self-conscious, it’s not an attempt at realism. It’s an attempt to charm the audience, not just portray the novel on film.

While the actors do a good job of being ‘in character’, they nonetheless portray their characters in a shallow one or two dimensional way. The deeper connexions and relationships between characters are less apparent than each character’s individual personality. Especially between Bao-yu and Dai-yu, the tension of their relationship and the friction of their personalities is captured exceedingly well, but none of their spiritual connexion is expressed in the film series. The story is much more shallow because the creators of the film apparently sacrificed symbolism and metaphor and abstract messages in favour of an extreme focus on all the material aspects of the story.

This shallowness is mainly due to the film’s complete omission of the ‘frame’ of the story. Even Bao-yu’s interaction with the Land of Illusion in his initial dream is left out. This is partly because China was so secularised at the time of filming that the audience was not interested in cosmology and philosophy, but also partly because the government was very anti-religion and thus an allegorically themed film series would not have been considered appropriate.

The film series also leaves out the poetry in ways that make the scenes empty and hollow. Instead of reciting a poem as Bao-yu watches her bury flowers, Dai-yu is silent and pensive while a terrible musical score with what could possibly be the poem blares throughout the scene. Things like this would have been overlooked by an audience who just wanted to see how the plot was developing and wanted to see the pretty costumes and garden scenery. Also, things like this would not have bothered an audience who was familiar with the story but had not read the novel.

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