Meticulous fidelity is generally too much to ask of any literary adaptation. But there are adaptations that take liberties, and then there is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, an “adaptation” of Lisa See’s novel that makes me wonder what the book ever did to the screenwriters to make them want to beat it nearly to death.
See’s book takes place almost entirely in mid-19th century China, where two girls—farmer’s daughter Lily (Bingbing Li) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun), from a family of higher social standing—are joined in a contract that makes them sworn sisters for life. But in the screenplay by Angela Workman, Ronald Bass and Michael K. Ray, that story is folded into a modern-day framing narrative in which the estranged friendship between two Chinese women—Nina and Sophia, also played by Li and Jun—gets its latest complication when an accident leaves Sophia in a coma.
You don’t have to be familiar with the changes from the book to be frustrated by the way the two decades-spanning plot lines intertwine. Snow Flower bounces forward and backward in time seemingly every two or three minutes; Hugh Jackman has little more than a cameo as Sophia’s boyfriend. There’s never any time for either of the central relationships to build resonance, and director Wayne Wang, while providing the requisite glowing cinematography and woodwind score, apparently gets so tangled up in the chronology that Lily somehow conceives her much-desired son while her husband is on a long business trip.
But the real crime is that this interpretation misses the entire emotional center of See’s book: a woman’s betrayal of her dearest friend in favor of societal conventions. The contemporary story—with its tortured attempts at creating parallels and the ham-fisted inclusion of a museum exhibit about the status of 19th-century Chinese women—manages nothing more complex than “Didn’t they have it rough back then?” and “Besties gotta stick together.”
SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN
Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Hugh Jackman