Adaptation: I Read the Book First

I remember saying to someone a few months ago that most of the movies we see in theaters (and, to a lesser extent, series on TV screens) these days can be classified into one group: adaptation. There are comic-book adaptations, novel adaptations from romance to sci-fi and YA, and even full-on reboots of past hits that can also be considered adaptations.

I’m not complaining. I will keep watching sci-fi and YA adaptations because I love seeing selfless (or fine, self-serving) heroes dispatch evil personified to the swell of a loud, dramatic soundtrack. And I’m a huge fan of Marvel movies and DC TV shows, for obvious reasons.

But you can’t always say the book is better than the movie. Both mediums have their limitations and conventions. Not every adaptation is a guaranteed hit (see: Sin City), and a book’s popularity doesn’t automatically fill cinema seats. There are instances wherein I loved the book and hated the movie (for example, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust); and really liked the movie(s) more than the book(s), as in the case of the Harry Potter series. Then there are things I completely hate in both book and movie form, like the Twilight and the Fifty Shades of Grey franchises.

Read up before watching the adaptation!
Ready for the movie! (Photo from here.)

For this reading spree, I’ll focus on two works that already have movie adaptations — and for which I had the rare benefit of reading the book before watching the movie. Of course, this being a book blog, I’ll focus on the book rather than the adaptation.

Manila and its Mondo-style adaptation

I already wrote a 10-page final paper on the book and movie for my Literature and Film class last term, so I’ll keep this part relatively short(er). 😜

Here’s a fun fact about Norman Wilwayco‘s Mondomanila: it actually has three versions. It began as a short story with the title Kung Paano Ko Inayos Ang Buhok Ko Matapos Ang Mahaba-haba Ring Paglalakbay, was then turned into a novel, and then into a screenplay — and then won Palanca Awards for its respective categories in 2000, 2002, and 2003. Well, damn, son. It takes its more well-known title of Mondomanila from director Khavn de la Cruz’s three film adaptations, which I’ll get back to later.

The 206-page novel, which Wilwayco made available for free on his blog years back, tells in nonlinear form the life story of Tony de Guzman. He’s not the kind of protagonist you root for. He’s a programmer-turned-next-level-fraudster-and-robber who also dabbles in aggravated assault, extortion, drug use, and indirect involvement in a murder. When the novel begins (and ends), he’s hiding in Baguio after siphoning off millions from an insurance company as revenge for his termination for sexual harassment.

One advantage that the novel has (and a movie adaptation doesn’t) is context. Within Mondomanila‘s 20+ chapters, readers will see how life in the slums — and the brutal isang-kahig-isang-tuka existence that millions of Filipinos have — has shaped Tony, for better and worse. We see him starting out as a worker at a water well and a balut-seller, then as a UP scholar and a white-collar worker with his own secretary and corner office. We see him with his friends and family, how and why he makes his choices, what drives him. Never mind that the overall message of the novel is that only the better off get better opportunities and the lower classes get the dregs; Tony will take what he can get, right here, right now, thank you very much.

This combination made me have conflicting reactions. On the one hand, Tony is the poster boy for how a man should never ever be. In fact, he embodies everything a decent human being will fight against; and makes this novel a must-read in the age of #MeToo, political correctness and equal rights. He places too much emphasis on being a “tunay na lalake” or “real man”; and doesn’t think twice about hurting others or committing crimes to get what he wants or needs. He views women as mere objects, or forms of entertainment, and mistreats/harasses them for kicks. He openly dislikes a gay character, assaults and disables a bully named Mutya years after an initial altercation, tricks another character into murdering a pedophile, repeatedly assaults a landlord and forces him and his nephew out of his own home, and denies the funeral benefits of former classmate Ronald B. Eliseo because Ronald accused him of stealing a donation can so he can impress his childhood love Klara.

Fucking charming. If he were a real person, I’d much like to high-five him in the face with an office chair. Or at least do this:

On the other hand, some readers would probably hail Tony as the hero of the working class. His characters also display hidden and open rage toward more well-off people, and at the cruelty of Life itself. Some would also say that Mondomanila is an accurate description of what real life is beyond the comforts of apathetic upper- and middle-class living, which I agree with.

Tony does redeem himself somewhat in the end. He pays for his mother’s wedding to Pablong Shoeshine, buys his family a house in Bulacan, and sells his own Baguio house to Sarge. But his “sins” remain at the forefront well after the story ends.

And the novel’s ending is probably the most unearned in any story I’ve ever read. That’s all.

Here’s another fun fact: the film versions of Mondomanila, by Khavn de la Cruz, also number three. There was the Marvin Agustin-starring 2004 short film Mondomanila: Institusyon ng Makata:

…and there’s the 2008 film Mondomanila: Overdosed Nightmare.

So. Three versions each for a story and a film. Nice.

What I watched for my aforementioned final paper was the 2012 version, simply titled Mondomanila. It’s short compared to Khavn’s other movies, clocking in at just a few minutes over an hour. It’s also classified as a mondo-style musical poverty-porn comedic mystery — yes, it gets confusing at times, and it has the fake/staged feel when you drop showbiz folk into their audiences’ home turf.

The movie version takes just six scenes from its source material, and many characters have had their names and stories changed. The novel’s multiple long rants about society and the government are also summarized in a few notable scenes with Tony. But I was so disappointed because the characters are played here as caricatures, unlike in the novel, where you can think of them as real people, with counterparts in your real life. Old-school comedians Palito and Whitney Tyson’s talents are wasted; and as in a typical Filipino media production, many people stand around and openly stare at the camera during takes.

The biggest advantage though is that Khavn’s voice is as distinct as Wilwayco’s; you just know it’s their book or movie. And like the source material, there’s no greater arc; they simply show us how tough life is when you’re already expected to fail.

Yet to see this adaptation

Again, thank you so much, Humble Bundle! I didn’t know I had an electronic copy of I Kill Giants until the movie adaptation made headlines this year, and I thought that title sounded familiar.

It wasn’t hard to see why so many people love this comics series. The heroine is young Barbara Thorson, a self-styled “giant killer”. She wields a makeshift hammer (nice Thor reference there), has trouble making friends, and is being bullied at school. Her sister, Karen, runs their home as their father’s an absentee parent, and her mother is dying of cancer. You could call her all the labels I’ve been called in the past: difficult, bitchy, abrasive.

My first thought is that Barbara has turned this personal mission into a coping mechanism — and when you’re facing problems like those, you’ll definitely need them. I relate to her social and emotional isolation, and her grief over losing a parent; the book made me wish that I had read it when I was her age, and facing these same problems. It would’ve made things easier for me, and/or reassured me that I wasn’t alone. That’s why I think adults must read this too, so they can learn how to relate to their kids or siblings in similar situations.

What I love the most about I Kill Giants is that Barbara’s mission is presented as both reality and imagination. The Titan that appears in the climax is seen by the other characters as a tornado, and Barbara’s battle with and conquest of the Titan is interpreted as her getting into the water before disappearing. By the end, you’d think giants are completely plausible, and Barbara must go after them. JM Ken Nimura’s B&W illustrations also help reinforce her binary frame of mind: it’s good vs. evil, always.

But some parts are heavy-handed, even for me. Like Ms. Molle’s efforts to reach out and talk to Barbara. Listen. If the kid doesn’t want to talk, don’t force him/her, then say you’re “allowed” only one face slap! If repeatedly forced into a corner like that, I’d surely do more than slap you, sweetheart. Taylor the Bully’s role is also bordering on cliché or unreal at times: she’s a big girl busting everyone’s asses because she has her own issues, going as far as to trespass on private property and vandalize whatever’s there. Then again, people like her do exist, and the way students begin pushing back by the end of the comic is righteous and cathartic.

The movie adaptation of I Kill Giants was in Philippine theaters back in March, but I didn’t get to see it. Guess I’ll wait for online streaming to catch up. But right now I have one question: what the fuck is up with movie trailers showing the entire goddamn movie???

Mondomanila, Norman Wilwayco
E-book, self-published

I Kill Giants (Fifth Anniversary Edition), Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura
CBZ, Image Comics/Humble Bundle
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