'Norwegian Wood': A Classic Book Becomes a Movie

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"The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her. I know, too, why she asked me not to forget her. Naoko herself knew, of course. She knew that my memories of her would fade. Which is precisely why she begged me never to forget her, to remember that she had existed.

So internationally acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami touches off the love triangle at the center of his iconic novel Norwegian Wood. Catcher in the Rye for Japan's post-1960s generation, the novel has sold over 9.2 million copies in its home country alone and has been translated into 36 languages. Now it's being turned into a movie—and judging from initial screenshots, the film version just might live up to the literary original.

Set against the backdrop of Tokyo student revolts and social upheaval in the late 1960s, Norwegian Wood pits protagonist Toru Watanabe, a stoic, preternaturally serious student between two women: the beguiling but depressive Naoko, an acquaintance of Toru's since childhood, and Midori, Toru's sprightly and rebellious fellow student. The novel's characters ignore and hurt and "force stuff" on each other, as Midori says, until each relationship becomes a zero-sum game in which the only way to gain stability is at the expense of a partner. What remains is a balance sheet of love's compromises.

Though not as blatantly surreal as Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood retains the author's characteristic transformation of the ordinary into the bizarre and his obsession for pinpointing the sacrifices maturity requires of youth. These qualities will, hopefully, be transposed to film in Norwegian Wood's first movie adaptation, directed by French-Vietnamese auteur Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, 1993), scored by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (There Will be Blood, 2007) and due to be released in Japan in December 2010.

Norwegian Wood was Murakami's first major hit in Japan and pushed the author into literary superstardom. After the novel's initial release in 1987, Norwegian Wood became a cultural icon. Originally published in two volumes, the first colored deep red and the second forest green, Murakami's novel inspired Japanese fans to broadcast their favorite section of the story by donning correspondingly colored t-shirts. The novel's English edition was translated by Jay Rubin and published in 2000, and though never as omnipresent as it became in Japan, even in America Norwegian Wood is one of Murakami's most widely read novels.

Although Hung's film adaptation was announced in July 2008, details and screenshots have only just begun to leak. Leaked stills show Toru sitting with Midori on her porch, setting the scene for the couple's first kiss, a visit Toru pays to Naoko and her older roommate Reiko, and several shots of Toru and Naoko together outside in the snow. The scenes mark an aesthetic that takes to heart Murakami's introverted and thoughtful characters, the novel's first-person intimacy with its main character and the surreal whirl of images and backdrops against which Toru, Naoko and Midori's stories play out.

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Kyle Chayka contributes on visual art to Hyperallergic.com and LEAP magazine in Beijing, and posts at @chaykak on Twitter. More

Kyle Chayka writes about art. He contributes on visual art to Hyperallergic.com and LEAP magazine in Beijing, and posts at @chaykak on Twitter.

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