‘Crazy Rich Asians’: Adaptation at Its Finest

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Crazy Rich Asians book cover and movie poster
Image Credit: Random House, Warner Brothers

By now everyone’s heard about the buzz behind Crazy Rich Asians starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable romantic comedy that, surprise, happens to feature an all-Asian cast. And while I could go on and on about how awesome that is, what I’m most impressed by is the quality of the adaptation from book to movie.

Warning: this review is chock full of spoilers, because, well, it’s hard to discuss the differences between the book version and the movie version of a story without actually discussing the differences. So consider yourself warned. I’m also not covering each and every difference, most specifically changes to minor characters and simplification of the storyline as a result.

Let’s Start With the Little Things

In the book version of Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel (Wu) and Nick (Golding) have been dating for two years (not one), and are heading to Singapore for the entire summer, not just Colin’s wedding; Peik Lin’s family, being ‘new money,’ hasn’t actually heard of the Young family, who are so old money that they’re secretive about it; and Peik Lin doesn’t attend the party at Ah Ma’s house and doesn’t bond with Oliver.

As far as changes go, these make perfect sense. The fact that they’d never before discussed marriage comes across as more generally believable at one year. It seems more approachable and normal for Rachel, as a character, to be so chill about her future in that way. Let’s be honest here. Society and culture, here in America and across the world, still holds that woman ‘of a certain age’ must be looking to marry. And the idea that Rachel would think otherwise, after dating someone for two years, would make her too unrealistic and unrelatable. Which of course is a sad statement, but I understand that directorial decision. Overall, it’s a pretty minor change. Also, the idea of just heading to Singapore for a week for the wedding, as opposed to planning to spend the entire summer exploring Southeast Asia, simply serves to tighten the timeline.

As for Peik Lin? Love, love, love her. She is such a delight, and her character (along with her entire family) is so entertaining, that I was thrilled whenever she appeared on-screen. And while I had loved Oliver’s delightful commentary throughout his scenes in the novel, watching him interact with Peik Lin just doubled the delight.

Medium Changes

The movie also included some bigger, more impactful changes: In the book, Eleanor skips out on Ah Ma’s party, Rachel and Nick stay with Ah Ma, and the confrontation with Ah Ma and Eleanor is certainly not done at the wedding reception.

Again, I understand why these changes were made. By tightening the timeline of the story, Eleanor’s fishing expedition with her friends needed to be cut. And as weddings offer natural anticipation (a.k.a. rising action) and a fixed climax, and Nick and Rachel are side characters in any wedding that isn’t their own, dovetailing the two storylines more tightly makes perfect sense. But sadly, what I felt was sacrificed in the edits were some of the nuances of Ah Ma’s character. While I clearly saw that she is loving and formidable, and has a strained relationship with Eleanor, this all serves more to deepen Eleanor’s character and less to define Ah Ma. Still, I get it. In the essence of time and flow of a movie, there had to be a certain give and take. Eleanor certainly makes a formidable antagonist.

That said, given how private the Youngs are, and how motivated they are by their desire to avoid controversy, I don’t completely buy the notion that the reveal of Rachel’s background by Eleanor and Ah Ma would ever take place at so huge an event. Even if they’re off in some secluded spot, Colin and Araminta’s wedding has been touted as the big media event, with a guest list including not only the media but the very people that the Young family would take great pains to hide the information from. So no, it just doesn’t compute. If it was deemed necessary to change it from the book, Eleanor could show up at the hotel the following morning, or Nick and Rachel can be ambushed at Ah Ma’s house, whatever (although sticking to the book version could also have worked). The urgency, after all, was learning of Nick’s impending proposal and their reaction to it. The assumption, of course, is that that’s what Eleanor senses when she looks at Nick and Rachel during the wedding, the realization that it’s only a matter of time before he proposes, with or without their blessing. Perhaps Eleanor figures that it’s only Rachel that gets outed, thus preserving the Young family integrity, but I don’t see her being as shortsighted as that.

Regardless, it’s certainly not a major enough point that I’d hold it against the movie as a whole. After all, in the novel, there was never a ring or a concrete proposal, so things changed, and I’m willing to let this one go. But I’ll get to that next.

Crazy Big Changes

Then there were what I consider the major changes (which honestly, the first two shouldn’t really count as, but something needed to fill out this section): Nick reveals Eleanor’s motivation, Rachel’s family background is toned down, Astrid’s story gets grossly simplified, the proposal is added, and Eleanor gets a ring.

First, the one big change that I didn’t care for was how Eleanor’s sacrifice–the explanation of why she didn’t live in Ah Ma’s house–is revealed by Nick. Throughout the book, Nick is oblivious of Eleanor’s sacrifice, or at least the motivation behind it. He doesn’t know, or acknowledge, that he is the heir to his family’s company. It makes sense, of course, but that level of obliviousness was granted to him. In fact, he never saw his mother as controlling, never witnessed the antagonism between his mother and grandmother, never felt the fear that Oliver expressed. Everyone else may have recognized the tyrannical, controlling side of Eleanor (and I say this not to condemn her, but to sharpen the contrast), but Nick only saw her as a doting, caring mother. He couldn’t have prepared Rachel for what she was about to face because he was completely oblivious to the idea that there would be any conflict.

This, of course, is how Nick mostly comes across throughout the Crazy Rich Asians movie, to the point that numerous people (including Astrid and Colin) caution him and clue him into what Rachel is going through. To his credit, he recognizes his errors and apologizes for the harm his obliviousness causes Rachel. But I still don’t completely buy into the notion that he would have realized that Eleanor had him grow up in Ah Ma’s house so that he could inherit everything. It was the ignorance of his destiny that allowed him to believe, as he tells Rachel on the plane, that he always thought of it as his family’s money. This is, of course, contrasted with his cousin Eddie, who perfectly embodies the obnoxious, showy side of entitlement. Had Nick grown up knowing he would one day take the helm of this outrageous fortune, he wouldn’t be so Nick. I say this not to suggest that every rich person is like Eddie (case in point: Astrid), only that this was part of the distinction made in the novel. And based on the characterization established within the novel, his revealing Eleanor’s backstory just doesn’t quite work. It is, to me, the one awkward adaptation that I wish had been done differently, perhaps by allowing Eleanor to somehow reveal this information.

That said, the reveal was important, as it was information that Rachel needed to know. And speaking of Rachel, I get why the horribleness of her backstory was toned down. I do. It’s perhaps darker than necessary in a light-hearted romantic comedy. I wish the threat to Rachel’s life had been expressed as more of the actual threat that it was instead of as an imagined fear of her mom, but that’s fine. Because Rachel needs to bounce back, and I feel the movie ending—-including adding and then tying in her expertise in game theory, the mahjong scene, and beyond—-was clearer and more powerful than the book’s. There’s a certain vagueness that’s more acceptable in novel form than in the theater, and I think some of the success of the movie has been in part because the new ending draws a more powerful emotional reaction from the audience.

Case in point, the ring. Seeing as the proposal wasn’t in the book, obviously, the whole ring business was fabricated as well. I have to say, the addition was a nice touch, both in terms of helping to establish Eleanor’s character and in creating an absolutely delightful, incredibly impactful scene on the plane at the end. In fact, one audience member gasped out loud during the reveal. It was adorable. And spoke to how approachable this story was.

I didn’t really mention Astrid’s story, but I’m going to just mention that there is a significant difference between the two, and I’m not sure yet how I feel about the change. For that matter, I’m not entirely sure I loved how the book wrapped up Astrid’s storyline. Regardless, I thought both versions were compelling, but since I haven’t yet read the other two books in the trilogy, I’m going to reserve judgment, since I don’t know if the change will impact the other two stories.

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Gets It Right

I used to hate adaptations of books. I had made the mistake of re-reading the first Harry Potter book right before going to see the movie, and it spoiled the experience completely as I spent the entire time in the theater acutely aware of the omissions and alterations. Later, I could reason my way through the necessities of the changes and eventually learned not to re-read HP books before heading to the theater, but rather to regard the movies as their own entities.

I tend to be a purist. The time, care, and attention that goes into a novel, I believed, should not be so callously disregarded in chasing the almighty dollars that come from a blockbuster movie project. (Yes, I recognize the snobbishness inherent in that attitude). But movies are a different medium altogether, and changes must be made to accommodate those differences. Novels have more time for subtlety, as well as certain flexibility in terms of internal versus external narration and observation. I don’t want to go into an in-depth comparison and contrast of the two media, but suffice it to say that I get that what works in one won’t always work in the other.

Crazy Rich Asians is an easy-to-read novel that has enjoyed considerable success. Jumps in time, shifts in point of view, and a myriad of settings are managed well to create an end product that works as a novel. And, clearly, with a few well-thought-out alterations, by all measures, as a movie.