Although a long time coming and perhaps even overdue, it makes perfect sense that Norwegian Wood would serve as the first feature-length film adaptation of a Haruki Murakami novel. Mostly accessible and an all-time bestseller in Japan, Norwegian Wood offers an atypically conventional narrative by Murakami’s standards, completely eschewing the time-and-space leapfrogging and fantastical excursions that distinguish the majority of his works.
Which is not to say that it’s bland or easily dismissible; in fact, grounding Murakami in reality may have forced him to write one of his richest tales of all, elevating the “as a young lad back in the 60s”-type story into something savory and poignant. Set against the backdrop of the student protests, Norwegian Wood follows Toru (Kenichi Watsuyama), a young college student grappling with his love for Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel fame), with whom he is connected to through a mutual high school friend who committed suicide. His death sent Naoko spiraling into depression and eventually led to her living at a sanatorium. Although Toru leads a hopeful existence in Tokyo, with another potential love interest, Midori, he finds himself unable to shake his past nor his love for Naoko.
Now, I realize that dragging out the ol’ “the book was better” complaint is as tired a cliché as they come. Moreover, trying to properly replicate Murakami’s world onto the big screen is a near-impossible task; as a longtime fan, I’ve always believed that his stuff already feels so cinematic on the page that any attempt to adapt to film would likely end up being redundant. Although Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung manages to keep most of the book’s original plot in sound place, it is a complete tonal departure, opting to forgo the book’s perfectly bittersweet balance of friskiness and pathos for full-blown melodrama, all set to a cloying, overbearing score by Jonny Greenwood. Tran is primarily known as a filmmaker for being a visual sensualist, and while there are some gorgeous moments scattered throughout the film, a lot of the photography looks like it was lifted from an Urban Outfitters vintage collection catalog. And while much of Murakami’s choice dialogue is still intact, the handsome but wooden performers fail to make any of it register.
Tran also commits one of the cardinal book-to-movie sins, making it an essential “greatest hits” collection by sacrificing much of the book’s nuance and wit in order to maintain all of the book’s Big Dramatic Scenes, and giving the movie awkward pacing and a runtime that’s at least 30 minutes too long. Trying to squeeze in more of the book’s plot was the wrong approach for a film that strives for a moody, elegiac tone; frankly, Norwegian Wood could have used more shots of Toru wandering around Tokyo or staring pensively into the distance through a coffee shop window. As Murakami continues to grow in stature internationally, becoming that rare 21st-century rock-star writer, we can only anticipate the inevitable parade of future adaptations to come. In some ways, Norwegian Wood is a perfectly respectable first entry; I particularly admire the delicate, sensual approach that Tran brings to this version. On the whole, however, he fails to do justice to Murakami’s vision. Suffice to say, the book was better.