Exclusive interview with author Justin Hill and a review of his companion book to the first-ever feature film produced by Netflix *** 3 Stars
By Gabrielle Panter
HOLLYWOOD, CA (Hollywood Daily Star) 2/29/2016 -“I was working on a historical novel about the Viking king Harald Hardrada, when my editor called me up out of the blue and asked me if I’d be interested in working on a novelization of the script of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny,” says author Justin Hill. “I’d seen the first film when it came out, and was blown away by the combination of beauty and action, which seemed to suit my style. And, I loved the idea of a writing a Chinese Game of Thrones.”
The original Crouching Tiger novel was written by Wang Dulu. Netflix rebooted the story to create an original screenplay, then Hill adapted the new screenplay back into a novel. There are still epic sword fights, but the new story sheds new light on why and how the characters do what they do. It’s an epic quest with female and male warriors fighting for good or evil.
Green Destiny is the sword that conquered the world. Seventeen years ago legendary fighter Mubai died protecting it. Duke Te hides the sword. When he dies, four warriors are called on to guard the formidable weapon. Shulien was Mubai’s lover and secretly had their child. Honor demands she must go to protect the sword from warlord Hades Dai. Young fighters Wei-fang and Snow Vase, join her. Shulien’s former fiancé, Silent Wolf, who was presumed dead, returns to help defeat Hades Dai. Shulien realizes they are still connected.
Hill, who has written stories about both modern and historical China, first traveled to China in the winter of 1992 where he worked for a volunteer organization in rural Shanxi province. He stayed in rural China for most of his twenties and started writing books set in China.
While living in Hong Kong, Hill knew the lady who represented Wang Dulu’s family, which proved convenient later. “She went straight to my editor to see if I would be interested,” says Hill. “I think they were keen that his books received the recognition they deserved.”
“We’re familiar with books being changed into movies, so to go the other way round and turn a script into a book was a really novel experience,” say Hill not noting the pun. “One of the most interesting things was how differently scenes worked on the page and on the screen. A script relies on so many other people. The director, cameraman, actors, set-design and all that stuff. A novelist has to do the work of all those designers and actors to life, and scenes that worked fine in a script can tend to fall flat when put onto a page.”
A screenplay is much shorter than a novel. “It made me think of how Brokeback Mountain started life as a short story,” says Hill. “Storywise, films and short stories are much more analogous. Novels, as Game of Thrones shows, lend themselves much more to series. So I had to expand the story in the script to make it fit properly. This was a pleasure, because it gave me a lot of freedom, and allowed me to go back to some of the original material that was cut from the novel and to bring it back. First thing I had to do was to make it a bigger story.”
“Probably the simplest thing I learned from this was that films work much more through action than novels, where drama is much quieter and understated,” says Hill. “Working with Hollywood, things are never straightforward. There were a lot of frantic phone calls and meetings, and then a script arrived with my name watermarked through it. I felt like a marked man carrying it in my bag as I walked through Hong Kong to my office.”
“Some of the places I had lived in China during my time there were in some ways little changed from the time this book is set,” says Hill. “There were mountain homes without water or electricity. Wild places in Tibet and Qinghai, where the ancient ways of life were hard to break. I remember one village where I was the first foreigner to visit since the Japanese left in 1945, at the end of the second world war. They had just got electricity, and her father had a single light bulb, which was a thing of wonder to the village. He unscrewed the light bulb and screwed it back in again as we moved from courtyard to the family room to our bedroom.”
Hill studied books of old photos of China and read first person accounts of the times from Chinese voices, such as Ida Pruit’s interviews in Daughter of Han, and Old Madam Yin. He read all the Chinese classics and literature set in the transition period at the end of the Qing Dynasty. He enjoyed reading a host of fabulous Chinese poets from the pre-modern period. And, he reread the original novels.
Hill has been nominated three times for the Booker Prize and won many awards. Shieldwall, A Sunday Times Book of the Year 2011. Passing Under Heaven won the Somerset Maugham Award 2005 and several more awards. Ciao Asmara was short-listed for the Thomas Cook Travel Award 2003. The Drink and Dream Teahouse, Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize 2003 and Betty Trask Award 2002. Washington Post Book of the Year 2002 and other prizes for The Drink and Dream Teahouse, that was banned in China and translated into 16 languages. His first first book was A Bend in the Yellow River (1997), when he was 22.
The Drink and Dream Teahouse (2001), a novel set in modern China, was his first attempt writing fiction. A penniless student at the time, the story sold at auction for a record-breaking £150,000. “It was a novel full of Chinese characters, which described the changes the society was going through as it evolved from Maoism to Capitalism, through the lives of a number of generations. It was a great hit…. It was also banned by the Chinese government, which made me furious at the time. Now I’ve mellowed a little and take as a backhanded compliment to the power of the story.”
After writing exclusively about China, Hill is writing a series of books set around the events in England in 1066 during The Battle of Hastings. The first of these, Shieldwall, came out in 2011 and was a Sunday Times Book of the Year. The sequel, Viking Fire, will be out next year.
Richard Beswick at Little Brown is Hill’s editor. “When you’re first published the agents and the editors largely pick you,” says Hill. “My first editor, who published The Drink and Dream Teahouse left to become an agent. I picked Richard Beswick because he was serious, understated, and we seemed to be on the same wavelength. I had, and have a lot of confidence in him. As an artist it’s my job to take risks, so when my editor says no or when he says something simply isn’t working. I get angry and frustrated, but the proof is generally in the pudding.”
“I first met Justin when he’d published a very successful novel about China, The Drink and Dream Teahouse,” says editor Richard Beswick. “I knew straight away that he was a writer who was totally in command of his material, all matters to do with China, and was a natural storyteller.”
Charlie Viney of the Viney Agency is Hill’s agent. “Having chosen my editor, I found I had a much better relationship with him than my agent, which didn’t seem right,” says Hill. I never heard from her, and soon her assistant started meeting me instead. So, I asked my editor to recommend some agents. Charlie is…encouraging, welcoming, always ready to talk, and brimming with ideas.”
‘I was very keen to represent Justin Hill,” says agent Charlie Viney. “His writing I loved. He is a highly regarded, prestigious client with an impressive multi-award-winning record.”
Hill, who spent almost all of his adult life in China, recently moved the family back to his native North Yorkshire. They live in a lovely little village on the Hambleton Hills overlooking the Vale of York, about five miles from where he grew up.
Sword Of Destiny is a co-production between Netflix, The Weinstein Co and China Film Group. The sequel came out last Friday in China and has grossed $32M. The film is avaialbe for viewing in Netflix and in IMAX theaters in the US.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny by Justin Hill (Author), Wang Dulu (Author – pen name of Wang Baoxiang) Trade Paperback, 320 pages, Publisher: Weinstein Books; Mti edition (January 26, 2016), Language: English, ISBN: 9781602862876 $14.99