By Jack Gross
When you try to put it in words it doesn’t sound like anything special. But if you see it with your own eyes for ten or twenty minutes (almost without thinking, she kept on performing it) gradually the sense of reality is sucked right out of everything around you. It’s a very strange feeling.– Haruki Murakami “Barn Burning”
Prolific Japanese author Haruki Murakami has written world-renowned and critically acclaimed novels such as Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Norwegian Wood. Murakami’s work has garnered recognition across the world, due in large part to the universality of his writing. However, what truly elevates his work above his contemporaries is the atmosphere and tone he is able to communicate. Eliciting comparisons to Hemingway because of his simplistic and direct syntax, Murakami’s postmodernist work occupies an intangible liminal space between hyperreality and illusory dreams. While on the surface this seems naturally cinematic, a lot of Murakami’s work comes in the form of internalized dialogue and thought, a practice that can only be translated to film via clunky narration. This is why filmmakers have struggled to adapt Murakami’s work while keeping its enigmatic intricacies firmly intact—that is until Lee Chang Dong’s 2018 film, Burning, based on one of Murakami’s short stories titled “Barn Burning.”
“Barn Burning” tells the story of a middle-aged writer that meets and begins a complicated friendship with a much younger woman, who suddenly decides to go on a trip to Africa. When she returns, she does so with a young enigmatic man with large sums of money. The protagonist feels a slight level of unease with this Gatsby-esque character. One day, the mysterious man and young woman decide to visit the protagonist’s house on short notice. After dinner, the woman takes a nap and the man and narrator smoke weed. Here, the man tells the narrator that he likes burning down abandoned barns, and has picked one near the narrator to burn down next. Following this, the couple leaves, and the narrator makes a map of all the neighboring barns so he can constantly check to see if any have been burnt down. As time passes, the narrator never finds evidence that a barn has been burnt, but the young woman he met has disappeared. The narrator does run into the man one last time, who insists he did indeed burn down a barn near the narrator. The short story ends with the narrator cynically reporting “I still run past the five barns every morning. No barn in my neighborhood has burned down. And I haven’t heard about any barn burning. December’s come again, and the winter birds fly overhead. And I keep on getting older.”
The core of this narrative is still very much intact in Lee Chang Dong’s adaptation, which turns 13 pages of text into a nearly two and a half-hour film. However, there are many changes in the film that, in my eyes, served to further elevate Murakami’s work by firmly connecting the story’s purposeful ambiguity to contemporary political and socio-economic issues emerging in South Korea. The first change from the story to the film involves the setting, which shifts from Japan to South Korea (home of Lee Chang Dong). In “Barn Burning,” no names are presented, which is thankfully not the case in Burning. The protagonist is named Lee Jong-su, the mysterious boyfriend is named Ben, and the woman is now Shin Hae-mi. Another striking revision in the film is the age of the protagonist, which transforms him from a seasoned and cynical middle-aged writer with a wife to a naive and idealistic recent college graduate with aspirations to become a writer.
While social status played a minor role in the short story, in the film, it is everything. Lee Jong-su is clearly meant to represent the working class, which is vividly reflected in the battered truck he drives, the unglamorous cluttered house he lives in, and his constantly revisited obsession with the N. Seoul Tower, a clear metaphor for high class and luxury. Lee Jong-su’s interest in the tower goes beyond fascination and journeys into the realm of sexual gratification. In one scene, he masturbates as he looks out the window at the sky-scraping building, in what feels like a strikingly visceral reimagining of the green dock light from The Great Gatsby. The concept of class struggle and existential determination is further cemented by Shin Hae-mi’s monologue surrounding “The Great Hunger,” where she explains how Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert experience either “Little Hunger” (hunger for food and survival) or “Great Hunger” (hunger for the meaning of life). Thematically, she suggests that those struggling to survive (the working class) are unable to search for and ponder meaning in life due to their preoccupations. While “Barn Burning” seemed to mainly concern itself with the ever-complicating nature of communication, meaning, and truth, Burning establishes itself as a prophetic examination into the complex and ambiguous cultural landscape we all live in.
The most telling change Lee Chang Dong elected to make in his film is not the setting, the added subplot, or the numerous additional scenes, but rather one small detail that I believe tells you everything you need to know. Instead of burning down barns, in Burning, Ben says he burns down greenhouses. But why? First, it seems as if this is an important cultural alteration of Murakami’s original story, due to the commonality of greenhouses in South Korea. Yet there is certainly more to this substitution, because switching the titular barns to greenhouses was not necessary, as South Korea does have barns as well. The reason for the switch instead is directly connected to both the purpose of a greenhouse itself and to Lee Chang Dong’s considerations for making Burning.
Inside a greenhouse is growing vegetation—at first there are only seeds deeply buried underneath the soil, and after sunlight and water, they sprout into various plants. In multiple interviews with various publications, director Lee Chang Dong discusses his reasoning for adapting this Murakami short story. In one conversation, he says he was interested in the singular events in Murakami’s “Barn Burning,”, but he “wanted to expand this mystery through cinematic means into a commentary on the mysteries of the times we are living through, and how ambiguous our lives actually are.” In another interview, he says “the film, on the surface, seemingly follows the smaller mysteries; Hae-mi’s disappearance, finding if the houses have been burned, but my wish was to have that keep expanding into the bigger and bigger questions of life; namely, the mystery of life and the world as it is today.” These two quotations, to me, are the key to Lee Chang Dong’s adaptation, and explain why he chose greenhouses. At the heart of the transfer between “Barn Burning”and Burning is growth, the extension of ideas beneath the surface, and the burgeoning mysteries that don’t simply permeate through a singular protagonist, but rather serenade us all as we traverse the various complications, implications, and miscommunications of life. So why eliminate the titular barn? Because Lee Chang Dong wanted to erase all forms of limitation in an attempt to explore the universality of mystery. What better visual allegory of this extension and earthly rendition of Murakami’s short than substituting a barn for a vegetative greenhouse?
Lee Chang Dong viewed Murakami’s 13 pages as a starting point, one that he knew with the proper treatment could sprout into something more, something universal and applicable to real-life struggles. This is the key to understanding why Burning works as an adaptation, because it takes the essence of its source material, and using the filmic language, extends it far beyond its initial reach, situating itself in the realm of social and political commentary. While many filmmakers would struggle with Murakami’s rich and complicated internal monologues, Lee Chang Dong found a way to brilliantly externalize them and grow them to a scale much beyond that of the short story. Additionally, both “Barn Burning” and Burning work to plant seeds in your mind, to nestle their way into your subconscious, and to force you to ask questions that can never be answered. Unlike Shin Hae-mi, both the short story and film view Little Hunger and Great Hunger as a false dichotomy, one perpetuated by those on top of the economic ladder (or N Korean Tower). This is why I believe Lee Chang Dong opted to instead have Ben burn down greenhouses, and this is also why I believe Burning works as such an impressive adaptation. Your mind is a greenhouse, and with the proper sunlight, like Lee Chang Dong’s Burning, your seeds will sprout, and you will hunger for the meaning of life.
With this case study in an adapted work surpassing its source material, it’s inevitable that questions arise surrounding the validity, necessity, and function of adaptations. If something can be learned from Lee Chang Dong’s adaptation of “Barn Burning,” it’s that limitations are self-imposed obstacles that should regularly be defied if one intends to truly extract the essence of a source material and make it something more. However, not all source material is ripe for this translation, something Lee Chang Dong understood. For those looking to adapt something into something else, they should view the source material as a foundation to build on, or as a canvas in which to paint on. Artists should in no way feel chained to a story when adapting it, rather they should feel inspired to add their own idiosyncrasies, artistic flourishes, and personal insight. Whether it’s video game to movie, movie to book, book to another book, or any other of the limitless combinations of artistic mediums, adaptations should be viewed as extensions, not soulless reiterations. The work of an adaptation should be to put the original material in a greenhouse and to let the seed sprout into a wholly unique and separate entity rooted in a familiar narrative.