FROM BOOK TO MOVIE: “The Devotion of Suspect X” to “Suspect X”- Review
Which is better…the book or the movie?
It’s a question almost as old as “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” The former query, however, is one with an almost universal answer.
Of course…it’s the book.
Well, if you ask readers, that is. Ask people who don’t read voraciously (or even regularly), and you might get a very different answer.
Ask someone who loves the MGM film adaptation of William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run to read the classic novel, and they might be utterly disappointed. While the MGM movie is incredibly fun and a very good movie — despite certain aspects not aging well — it bears little resemblance to the book, which is far more epic in scale. The result is that the movie retains a few names and the core concept on the novel, but little else. Those who fell in love with the movie might be a little taken aback by the novel, wondering where the Domed City went or what happened to Carousel, renewal…and what about Old Man and his cats?! None of the foregoing, of course, exist in the novel. But lovers of the film won’t necessarily know that and might find the original novel disappointing because of it.
I myself love both the movie version and the original novel despite them being very, very different beasts. Seldom, however, do motion pictures live up to their source material, let alone surpass or even stand on their own. This can be due to a number of factors, most usually the time constraint of motion pictures themselves. While an author has unlimited number of pages to delve deeply into plot and character, motion pictures must accomplish the same thing in roughly a two-hour time span (well, three and a half in today’s atmosphere of needlessly bloated films). And so changes have to be made if a book is to make it to the motion picture screen.
Film is also a visual medium. Pages of prose aren’t needed to create a mood. The cinematographer can paint that in a second with interesting angles and expert lighting. Dialog so indispensible to the development of plot or character can be expertly accomplished at the hands of a topnotch screenwriter, actor or director. And, frankly, let’s face it. The movie screen has long ago surpassed the utilization of personal imagination. It is far easier to sit in a movie theatre and be entertained or moved rather than spend weeks reading a book and having to use — shudder, shudder — your imagination.
While it is rare for me to find film adaptations that I feel exceed their books, I do find it to occasionally be true. The skill of the adapter, the director and the actors and the choices each of them make can occasionally bring new dimensions and result in something that exceeds — or at the very least equals — the literary work.
So what makes for a good adaptation? There are a hundred possible answers, but for me, the most important thing is that the filmmakers remain faithful to the spirit of the book. It goes without saying that a director can’t include every single scene, piece of dialog or plot point. If one attempted to do that, the movie would be a James Cameron film and trust me…no one wants that. So, it all starts, really, where all films start…with the screenwriter.
Adapting a novel is a unique skill that takes a very observant eye. A good screenwriter will look at each chapter of a novel and analyze it. What is the goal of each chapter? Does it propel the plot? If so, how? Is it there to establish character? If so, what is the core aspect of character and how does the author accomplish it? Is there one aspect of that character building that stands out as the most important? Is it simply a charm chapter, meaning one simply to charm the reader? How is the author charming the reader? If the screenwriter has done their homework and learned the structure and intent, they should be in a good place to decide what is important to keep and what the actors or cinematographer can accomplish just as well, but quicker. If you don’t have a skilled adapter onboard, you’re pretty much sunk before you even begin.
Then it is up to the director. Once she and the screenwriter have captured the essence, theme and structure of the novel, it is her job to fill in the missing pieces by choosing the correct actors, cinematographer, and sound editor. Any one of these vital players not being top-notch can doom a good adaptation to failure.
With that in mind, I thought I would opine on one novel and how it was transformed into a feature film. While I usually read the literary version before seeing the movie, I did it the other way round this time, discovering a novel simply because I had seen the film version (which, honestly, is a very good thing about films…they can lead to increased readership of the original work).
One evening, I stumbled on to the feature film Yonguija X (Suspect X but also called The Perfect Number on some platforms) while browsing through the South Korean offerings on DramaFever, an internet streaming VOD service. It had a number of actors my boyfriend and I liked and from the description it seemed dark and brooding, a nice departure from the usual historical dramas, romantic comedies and melodramas we usually catch on the service.
We were blown away by the movie. The very next day I bought a digital version of the novel upon which it was based and devoured it. In the end, both were excellent, but in this case there were places where the movie far exceeded the book. Conversely, there were times when the book outshone its celluloid counterpart.
WARNING WILL ROBINSON
While I will try not to give away all the secrets of the novel or the movie, the following contains significant spoilers as it is impossible to compare the two without going into significant detail. Read ahead at your own risk.
FROM THE BOOK
Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X (容疑者Xの献身) was originally published in Japan in 2005 as the third in a line of novels known as the “Detective Galileo mysteries,” a very popular series in Japan. It went on to win a number of prestigious literary awards and was adapted into a 2008 Japanese feature film, the same year a television series based on the Detective Galileo character began airing on the Fuji Television Network.
In 2011, the novel was translated into English by Kevin O. Sullivan and published by Minotaur Books. The translation was nominated for Edgar and Barry awards and landed on the American Library Association’s 2012 reading list as Best Mystery Novel of the year.
THE SUMMARY: In the novel, we are introduced to Tetsuya Ishigami, a balding, paunchy man who may be plain and unassuming, but who is, in fact, a true mathematic genius…an aging prodigy. By day, he is stuck teaching rudimentary mathematics at a local university (perhaps more akin to an American community college), a job he clearly loathes because of the students’ indifference to the subject matter and the political necessity of dumbing down his tests so that, as the university chairman dictates, the students can pass. His heart is in solving the great “unsolvable” mathematics problems, something he does fastidiously in his off hours.
Ishigami is clearly down and out. He lives in a two room flat in a disused, low-rent apartment building and leads a routine and stagnant existence. Every day, he walks to work through the local homeless encampment, stops at the same lunch shop to pick up the same box lunch, and attempts to teach the same apathetic and arrogant youth. And then walks home again.
In creating Ishigami, author Higashino expertly presents a man whose greatest gift has no real outlet; a man who finds life’s necessities tedious and tiring; a man who would — if he could — stay locked in a room all day doing nothing but working on his equations. But the author doesn’t just paint him as a stereotype…some Japanese Norman Bates. Ishigami, in almost a contradiction, is also the leader of a Dojo and so must have some passion for the martial arts, though that, too, seems to have been leeched away.
His next-door neighbor is a rather ordinary woman named Yasuko Hanaoka; she and her teenage daughter Misato are relatively new to the building. It just so happens, however, that Yasuko works at the Benten-tei, the box lunch place Ishigami goes out of his way visit every day. Though the two seldom exchange more the five words at each encounter, Ishigami has clearly developed a crush on Yasuko, though she herself seems not to be aware of it.
One evening, Yasuko’s ex-husband Togashi arrives at her apartment door and connives his way in. We learn that their marriage has been over for five years and that Yasuko has quit jobs and moved numerous times to keep her ex from finding her. The Great Recession and his own less than honorable business methods have reduced the once highly successful businessman to a leech and a troublemaker. He attempts to extort money from Yasuko and when she again attempts to break all ties, he becomes threatening toward Misato, his stepdaughter. Things quickly escalate and Yasuko and Misato end up killing Togashi by strangling him with the poser cord from their kotatsu, a table space heater.
Even though the murder is clearly self-defense, Yasuko and Misato are terrified they will go to jail and be separated. Yasuko decides she will turn herself in; that Misato was not involved. It is very important that Misato remember that she was not home when Togashi visited. Yasuko is resolved. But then there is a knock at the door.
It is Ishigami wondering if everything is all right…if he might be of some kind of assistance. Yasuko tries to brush him off, insisting that they had simply chasing a cockroach.
Did you kill it?
The cockroach. Did you kill it?
With more apologies proffered, Ishigami returns to his own apartment while Yasuko and her daughter argue over the plan for Yasuko to turn herself in. Suddenly, the phone rings…it is Ishigami once again.
Ms. Hanaoka…It’s very difficult to dispose of a body…A woman can’t do it by herself.
When Yasuko realizes Ishigami has heard everything through the flimsy walls, she has no choice but to trust the teacher. Ishigami points out how the story that Misato was not involved would quickly fall apart upon viewing of the crime scene by even the most inept detective. And Ishigami offers the unheard of. He offers to help her cover up the crime and dispose of the body…but Yasuko must follow Ishigami’s instructions to the letter.
A few days later, an unidentified body is discovered on the banks of Tokyo’s Edogawa River. Its face has been smashed in and fingerprints have been burned away. Enter Shunpei Kusanagi, a veteran detective, and his partner and junior, Kishitani. Due to the damage to the body, Kusanagi knows they have a long slog ahead of them. But soon enough, clues emerge — partially burned clothes, a bicycle with a flat tire, a report of a stolen bicycle — and the identity of the body is discovered: a man named Togashi who just so happens to have an ex-wife name Yasuko who does not live terribly far away.
Kusanagi and his partner pay a visit to Yasuko who seems genuinely surprised that her ex-husband — whom she assures the detective she hasn’t seen for years — is dead. The duo question her, but it turns out she has an alibi, one that checks out very nearly airtight. Still, going on nothing but gut instinct, Kusanagi is certain that Yasuko, her daughter or both were involved in the murder. His partner, Kishitani, ruled by evidence and the woman’s alibi, seems equally convinced of her innocence.
Kusanagi pays a visit to her neighbor, a Mr. Ishigami, a nebbish man who seems to know little of the woman despite living next to her. He discovers, however, that he and Ishigami attended the same university, though they had not known one another. A curious development, one Ishigami quietly notes.
As the police investigate, Ishigami keeps close tabs on the detectives and even closer tabs on Yasuko and her daughter. Each night, he travels to a pay phone and calls them with detailed instructions as to what they are to say, what they are to do. Ishigami expertly leads the police to believe exactly what the wants them to believe. He draws them toward Yasuko and for a moment we doubt that his intention is to protect her. Then, just as quickly, he misdirects them away.
It is a clever and suspenseful cat and mouse game between a brilliant man and a seasoned detective. But why, we as readers wonder, did Ishigami make the body so easily identifiable? Why did the police come straight to the one woman Ishigami didn’t want to be suspected? What exactly is Ishigami doing? And how, exactly, did he get that body to the bank of the river with no apparent means to do so?
As the clues mount and Ishigami-directed red herrings are explored and discounted, Detective Kusanagi becomes frustrated and almost blindingly obsessed with discovering how Yasuko was involved in her husband’s death. He decides — as he has when other cases drove him to distraction — to consult with his friend, Dr. Manabu Yukawa, nicknamed Detective Galileo.
A physicist, Dr. Yukawa is almost the antithesis of Ishigami. True, they are both brilliant in their fields, but whereas Ishigami lacks any substantive social skills, Yukawa in a bon vivant who revels in his interactions with people from all walks. He especially enjoys his interactions with Detective Kusanagi, an old college friend, who is definitely not his intellectual equal but who does offer him puzzles of a different nature from time to time.
The relationship between Yukawa and his detective friend is an interesting one. In the hands of a lesser author, Yukawa could have easily been reduced to an expository character, one who does nothing but feed answers to the Detective. But, Higashino turns the relationship into another cat-and-mouse game, Yukawa seeing things Kusanagi does not and goading him to look deeper, to find the answers himself. Yukawa has an oddly dispassionate interest in the case…that is until he learns that the main suspect’s neighbor is Ishigami, a brilliant man with whom he’d gone to school.
On learning his old colleague is tangentially related to the case, Yukawa pays Ishigami a visit. Though he tries not to show it, he is shocked at how far such a brilliant mind has fallen. After spending some time with Ishigami, Yukawa develops a gut feeling that his old friend is somehow involved in the crime. But much like Detective Kusanagi, he has nothing more than that…a gut instinct…that and the knowledge of Ishigami’s brilliant mind. He is certain that Ishigami is crafting everything in the most logical, most mathematical way possible.
Yukawa’s appearance on the scene introduces an “unexpected variable” into Ishigami’s expertly crafted plan. He assures Yasuko that this, too, is something he can and will deal with. But then the story takes another twist when Kuniaki Kudo, an old suitor of Yasuko’s, arrives on the scene, and Ishigami not only has to deal with a second unexpected variable, but also his growing jealousy as they seem to spend more and more time together. His plans seem to take a more sinister turn and soon Yasuko start to feel as if she has traded a life in prison for a life under the increasingly rigid control of Ishigami.
When “Detective Galileo” purposefully tags along with Ishigami to Benten-tei one morning and sees the mathematician’s reaction to Yasuko, it is only then that he begins to fathom the extent, brilliance and danger of Ishigami’s plans. He doesn’t know all the pieces, but he know he must convince Ishigami or Yasuko to abandon a tact that can only lead to the destruction of a brilliant mind. Meanwhile, Detective Kusanagi has another suspect on his mind…Ishigami himself who, he has discovered, suspiciously took the day of the murder and the next day off work…after seldom missing a day in his entire tenure.
In a shocking turn, Ishigami turns himself in for the crime, confessing his love for Yasuko, expressing how she “talks to him through the walls,” how he knew he needed to kill to dangerous ex-husband, Togashi. Clearly, Ishigami is playing crazy but we as readers realize that this was his plan all along: He would take the fall for the crime. It was he who killed Yasuko’s ex-husband…and every piece of evidence can only lead to that conclusion. Sure enough, Detective Kusanagi searches Ishigami’s apartment and finds the murder weapon and other evidence that clearly points to the mathematician.
But the story hardly ends there…Will Yukawa discover all the pieces of a seemingly unsolvable puzzle? Will Detective Kusanagi jail the correct person? Will Ishigami keep his promise to always protect Yasuko or will his jealousy lead to another victim in suitor Kudo? They are all questions that the author juggles brilliantly, building massive suspense until the very end.
THE REVIEW (contains spoilers as well): Now, when reviewing a novel translated from a foreign language it is important to take into consideration the translation and its effect on the overall story. And although I do not speak Japanese I immediately had problems with the translation, which I found to be stilted, jerky and lacking any beauty or emotional depth. Scouring the web for other takes on this, I discovered that many others had the same problem, including some speakers of Japanese who had read the novel in its original language. While the translation may not prove to be the culprit in some of the problems I had with the novel, it is, perhaps, the biggest problem for an otherwise brilliant novel. Still, there are other problems that one cannot chalk up to a fallow translation.
It is interesting that the author chose the word “Devotion” for the title as The Devotion of Suspect X seems, on the surface, to be a novel more about obsession than devotion. Ishigami is obsessed with his work and Yasuko. Yasuko, on the other hand, is obsessed with protecting her daughter. Detective Kusanagi is obsessed with proving the guilt of Yasuko, though all evidence exonerates her, and Yukawa is obsessed with solving the unsolvable problem Ishigami has crafted.
But at its heart, the novel is really about devotion, namely Ishigami’s devotion. But it is not only his devotion to Yasuko, but to mathematics that drives him. And it is possibly here that the translation does its greatest disservice to the original novel. For a story so filled with heightened emotions, the English translation is remarkably dispassionate, almost sterile. Now, this could be an element of the original Japanese novel. After all, the story is about a highly analytical man. Perhaps author Higashino meant for that lack of emotional resonance to be reflective of that. However, when one looks at the various elements of the novel — the emotional states of the characters, their highly detailed stories that lead them to this place, the time the author invests in the backstories and relationships — it’s hard to believe the author wasn’t aiming to create an emotional reaction in the reader. All the pieces are there and yet the novel carries little emotional impact. While I can’t be sure, I personally chalk this up to the translation which bothered me consistently throughout.
What Higashino manages to accomplish despite an arguably inferior translation, however, it what is so remarkable about this novel. From the beginning, we know who the murderer is. Even Detective Kusanagi knows who the murderer is, though he cannot say why. In that sense, this novel is not a murder mystery. The mystery is in how Ishigami has crafted the cover-up. What exactly did he do? We doubt him at first when the police are so easily led to Yasuko, but we know that his brilliance cannot make it that simple. We, the readers have all the clues right before us…it is up to us to put them all together. That is the mystery in this murder mystery. And that is the brilliance of the novel. Just as Ishigami plays cat-and-mouse with Kusanagi and later Yukawa, the author plays the same game with the reader. Are we smart enough to solve what other brilliant minds cannot?
The background that Higashino gives us for each of the characters helps build the motivations for how they behave in the story. We learn why Ishigami ended up teaching in a high-school rather than working, as Yukawa does, in the learned halls of research and higher academia, and the character is made all the richer for it. We also learn why Ishigami — who has hardly spoken more than a dozen words to her before the murder — is so devoted to Yasuko and her daughter. The emotional depth this gives the character, though, is somewhat sabotaged by the flaccid translation.
We are given incredible insight to Yasuko and her past tribulations with her ex-husband. We are also given a glimpse into what her life could have been — and might again be — had she ended up with suitor Kudo. Kudo, likewise, is given amazing depth of character as we learn why he and Yasuko had never become a couple. Largely, however, the Kudo character almost seems like padding in the novel, his sole purpose to give more emotional resonance to Yasuko’s story arc.
It is perhaps in the Kudo character that the novel misses a unique opportunity. His presence elicits a jealousy in Ishigami that never fully plays out in the novel. That jealousy and the possible repercussions of it should have given a very dangerous air to Ishigami, turning him from a character we sympathize with into someone we fear. We should have believed that in his jealousy, Ishigami could have killed Kudo to keep Yasuko to himself or, worse still, turned the tables so that Kudo is framed with the murder for which Yasuko is the prime suspect. It is hinted at in the novel, but we never quite believe that is where Ishigami will go with it. But we should believe it. A fault of the translation? Possibly. The sterility of the translation certainly could have undercut Ishigami’s emotional reaction to Kudo. But I fear this might be a fault, rather, with the original novel.
Another aspect of the novel that just doesn’t quite seem to gel is Ishigami’s manipulation of Yasuko. Certainly the author keeps Yasuko from knowing all of Ishigami’s machinations and to a certain degree Ishigami purposefully needs to keep Yasuko in the dark for her own good. But, just before confessing to the crime, Ishigami leaves specific instructions for her as to how to behave, what to say, and the like. This especially comes into play with the reasoning behind Ishigami calling her only from a pay phone, which comes off rather banal and uninspired in the novel.
Another problem with the novel is the character of Dr. Yukawa, Detective Galileo. His character is almost a third wheel in this novel and never becomes, for this reader, a particularly interesting character. In fact, of all the main characters, he is the least interesting and seems to serve very little purpose dramatically or structurally. Now, perhaps this is because I have not read the other novels in the Detective Galileo series. Or perhaps it is the author attempting to insert an established and popular character into a work where he doesn’t really belong. His presence also serves to undermine the Detective Kusanagi character who never even comes close to solving the crime. He is a character robbed of his moment in the novel, largely due to the presence of Yukawa.
And this leads, perhaps, to the biggest problem I had with the novel…the fact that Ishigami simply turns himself in. Ostensibly, this is because of the pressure that Yukawa places on him, but it felt terribly contrived and out of place and anti-climactic. And what follows — in particular, the final resolution — serves to cheat Ishigami of all the hard work he has undertaken and, honestly, had this reader feeling a bit cheated as well.
And there are other problems with the novel although, collectively, they don’t rise to the occasion of ruining it. The lack of technology in Detective Kusanagi’ investigation of Yasuko’s alibi feels anachronistic, as if it belonged in a 1970s novel rather than modern times. The reasoning for Ishigami being part of a Dojo is also not fully explored or exploited. I assume it is referenced to lend believability to the fact that Ishigami, despite all appearances, was strong enough to commit the crime.
Like all mystery novels, there is a long expository section explaining what happened and why it happened and who did what to whom and in which order. But most mystery novels suffer from the same ailment. In the end, long before it is revealed, we as readers have already figured out that Ishigami had always planned to take the fall for the murder, though we may not have known all the mechanics of it all. So a large portion of that expository chapter could have been greatly reduced.
There is an unexpected twist that the author puts into the novel which I did not see coming. While it could have been foreshadowed a bit more in the novel, the believability and shock of it is a masterstroke by the author. What that twist also does is drive home that Ishigami’s devotion to Yasuko isn’t the only reason he is willing to go to jail. He’s also devoted to something else…mathematics.
All in all, the Devotion of Suspect X turns out to be an engaging, oft times brilliant mystery despite its flaws and a less than stellar translation. It is a wonderful introduction to an author of whom I was not aware. But now that I am aware, I will be investigating Higashino’s other works.
TO THE MOVIE
Yonguija X (용의자X, literal translation, Suspect X, also released under the English-language title Perfect Number) is a 2012 adaptation of Higashino’s novel. It stars actors Ryoo Seung-Bum as Suk-Go (the Ishigami character), Lee Yo-Wan as Hwa-Sun (the Yasuko character) Cho Jin-Woong as Detective Jo (the Detective Kusanagi character). Ably at the helm is actress-turned-director Bang Eun-Jin directing from a screenplay adapted by Kim Tae-Yoo, Lee Kong-Joo and Lee Jung-Hwa.
As far as plot, Suspect X remains remarkably faithful to the original novel; so another lengthy summary isn’t really needed here. As with any motion picture adaptation, however, there are quite a few modifications, most of them minor, but one tantamount to an amputation. It is an adaptation that is clearly respectful of the source material, but also one unafraid to branch out on its own when it is absolutely needed. And in most cases, the changes serve the film exceedingly well and, honestly, fulfill some of the expectations not quite met in the novel.
One of the biggest (but by no means the biggest) changes can be found in the casting of actors Ryoo and Lee in the Ishigami and Yasuko roles. 34 and 35 respectively, Ryoo and Lee are junior to their literary characters by at least a decade. For those unfamiliar with South Korean dramas and, to a lesser extent, feature films, it is not unusual to see major scientists and industry leaders cast at the age of 25 or 26. So, while motion pictures tend to be a more youth-centric medium, director Bang should be credited for not reducing the age further, which would have strained all credibility.
The casting of Ryoo, in particular, is a masterstroke. One of South Korea’s must versatile and impressive actors, Ryoo is known most widely for his eccentric and manic portrayals that always manage to be charming rather than annoying and deeply rich rather than stereotype. It short, his comedic turns have always been sewn together with humanity and realism despite their wackiness, and his performance here as the Ishigami character is heartbreakingly introverted and, when needed, endlessly creepy. Though the comparison isn’t quite rights, one can’t help but think of the career versatility of the late Robin Williams, who could also go from outrageously comedic to complex, nuanced and quiet performances like those he delivered in Dead Poets Society or Insomnia.
Lee, a popular and talented actress, was also a good choice for the Yasuko character. She brings a lovely warmth to the character, a believable sense of fear of her ex-husband and of the Ishigami character when it takes a darker turn. It is a performance grounded in reality and quiet nuance.
Of course, the lower age of the characters requires a few minor changes. A Yasuko character at 35 clearly could not have a teenage daughter; instead she has a teenage niece (ably played by Kim Bo-Ra), the fate of her parents largely unexplained. This change also allows for a new threat from the ex who, when he shows up at the house demanding money, makes sexual threats toward the niece. While not necessarily needed, this threat does provide even more motivation for the Yasuko character to kill her ex-husband and reinforces the lengths she will go to protect her niece…even if that means going to jail. Likewise, the Ishigami character no longer teaches at a community college, but rather is stuck in a high school setting, providing an even more dramatic fall from greatness for the Ishigami character.
The commanding Cho Jin-Woong steps into the shoes of the Detective Kusanagi character, bringing a world-weary, world-wise believability to the character despite the lower age (Cho is also 35). His urgency and passion are exactly what the Kusanagi character needs and his tenacity is admirable.
But what became of the brilliant physicist Yukawa, friend of Detective Kusanagi, you ask? In the biggest change the movie could have made, our Detective Galileo is excised entirely, his plot mechanics seamlessly blended into the Kusanagi character.
While readers of the original novel might call “foul,” from a production standpoint this makes perfect sense. Director Bang is unfettered by the need to include Yukawa because Bang’s film is not one of a series. She is not making the Detective Galileo film series, but rather a stand-alone film. So from a pure storytelling perspective, the character is not needed.
What is needed, however, is the observational skills that Yukawa possesses and which the literary Kusanagi character did not. So Bang and her screenwriters wisely melded the two characters together. The fact that Kusanagi and Ishigami went to school together is played up considerably more than in the novel, with Kusanagi having been somewhat of a bully to the young Ishigami character. This bully-bullied dynamic also serves to heighten the tension between the two, giving even more depth to an already complex relationship.
The effect of combining the two characters also solves a fairly large problem I had with the original novel: the fact that Yukawa seemed like a needlessly inserted character, a third-wheel, and Kusanagi felt little more than bluster and stumbling. In Bang’s take, the Kusanagi character is far more intelligent and well rounded. His story arc also becomes far more satisfying because even though for the majority of the novel and film we are rooting against his character, we still need to have some satisfying culmination of all his hard work as he serves as the reader’s stand-in. So, in the end, the Kusanagi character puts all the puzzle pieces together which, even if a detective is the anti-hero, is what we really want detectives to do in a good mystery.
There are other changes, both large and small. The murder weapon is transformed into an older iron rather than a kotatsu (far less common in South Korea) and the clues as to the identity of the murder victim are laid out more quickly and plainly, though we’re never quite sure how they fit together. Also, instead of being part of a dojo, the Korean Ishigami is a scuba diver. This latter change is integral as scuba can be a solitary sport, further illustrating Ishigami’s self-imposed isolation, while maintaining the fact that Ishigami (no longer a paunchy, middle-aged man, but rather a far-from-handsome loner) has the strength to have committed the murder. It also rather brilliantly answers one of the great, unexplained mysteries of the novel.
A major change from the novel is the significant reduction of “screen time” for the suitor Kudo. His expansive backstory (as well as the relationship backstory) is significantly reduced verging on totally eliminated. While this does render suitor Kudo as a less dynamic character, from a production standpoint none of this is needed and would have served only to slow down the story. Thanks to the performance by Lee, we don’t need the exposition the novel requires in order to garner sympathy for her. Lee accomplishes it all with a look, a sigh.
Suitor Kudo, however, is still utterly important. In an aspect of the movie that far outshines the novel’s handling of it, Kudo’s arrival on the scene generates a palpable fear of Ishigami in both the viewer and the Yasuko character. While the novel does approach this, the movie (aided remarkably by Ryoo’s performance) goes full throttle into it. We utterly believe in the ferocity of Ishigami’s jealousy. We can sense his ultimate control of the Yasuko character and the danger he could place suitor Kudo in. We are certain Ishigami is going to frame suitor Kudo. After all, he wants Yasuko to himself.
This aspect also leads to a scene in the movie that isn’t present in the novel, at least not in the same form. Frustrated and feeling trapped, the Yasuko character visits Ishigami. Realizing she is to be held emotionally captive by this man for the rest of her life, she offers herself sexually to Ishigami. It is a heartbreaking scene, especially the last moment of it.
Suitor Kudo also solves another one of the bigger problems I had with the novel: Ishigami simply turning himself in. Instead, the Korean Ishigami attempts to kill suitor Kudo, leading to his arrest. We believe this moment utterly, Ishigami’s jealousy clearly having taken control of him. It is a far more satisfying plot move than Ishigami’s literal surrender.
Once Ishigami has been arrested, all that he has done becomes clearer. The police search his apartment and find indisputable evidence that Ishigami not only killed Yasuko’s ex, but also that he was fatally obsessed with her. The threatening demeanor Ishigami had toward her makes complete sense now in retrospect…the always calling her from a pay phone (clarified in the movie) fits perfectly into Ishigami’s plan. This all largely follows how it was handled in the novel but has more of an emotional impact because of the one key differences between film and literary works. Those pages of exposition where everything is explained can actually be shown in the tried and true staple…a flashback. Now, while flashbacks have largely become a crutch for lazy filmmakers, when it comes to mysteries, if done well, it is indispensible, eliminating that whole “I know you all wonder why I’ve called you here today” aspect of literary mysteries. And here it is done exceptionally well.
There are other minor changes in the film, some handled better than the book and some not. The lack of technology used by the detectives is addressed and the foreshadowing of one aspect of the mystery (which I have tried hard not to reveal here) is handled significantly better in the film. But in the film we do lose an aspect of Ishigami from the books that really is vital.
Yes, it is his devotion to the Yasuko character that drives him. But in the novel, it is also his devotion to mathematics. In the novel, what Ishigami does is not an entirely selfless act. It isn’t all about Yasuko and the movie sadly misses that.
The final resolution in the movie is also far more satisfying than the book, the book tending to undo some of Ishigami’s good deed. But in this respect, both share the same overwhelming realization that no matter what happens, Ishigami and Yasuko’s futures are immutable and, in some respects, doomed.
So, which is better? The movie or the book?
In this case, for this reviewer, while the novel is clearly brilliant, the movie was a far more emotionally satisfying work. This is in part due to smart changes director Bang and her screenwriters made in service to the story, but one cannot dismiss that the emotional impact of the novel may have largely been impacted by a less than stellar translation.
In the end, director Bang Eun-Jin has made a movie that was not only incredibly respectful of the source material, but augmented it through smart and clean choices. If only all filmmakers did the same thing more often we’d be far more satisfied with the celluloid cousins of our favorite literary works.