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'The Sympathizer' Executive Producers Break Down Book-to-Screen Adaptation

Apr 29, 2024
  • Source by Variety
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'The Sympathizer' Executive Producers Break Down Book-to-Screen Adaptation




“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.”


So begins Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” which, when released in 2015, was hailed for its humorous, biting interrogation of American perspectives on the Vietnam War.


Integrating elements of the espionage thriller à lá John le Carré with a heavy sense of irony reminiscent of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” “The Sympathizer” is told from the viewpoint of an officer in the U.S.-supported South Vietnam army who secretly reports back to communists in North Vietnam. Framed as a confession to the people for whom he has ostensibly been spying, the narrator — who goes unnamed in the novel — chronicles the story of his journey to Southern California, where he joins the Vietnamese refugee community settling there and grapples with questions of loyalty and assimilation.


In a 2015 interview, Nguyen, who is a professor at the University of Southern California, said he wrote the book as a reaction to the dearth of literature that, “directly confronts the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view.”


“I sensed a reluctance to be angry at American culture or at the United States for what it has done,” Nguyen said, adding that the book is also “very critical of South Vietnamese culture and politics and Vietnamese communism.” Instead of choosing its targets selectively—only being critical of one group—it decides to hold everyone accountable.”


Nearly nine years after the book’s publication and forty-nine years after the end of the Vietnam War, the novel about a “man with two faces” now also has a second face, in the form of the HBO series of the same name, from co-showrunners Park Chan-Wook and Don McKellar. Starring Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan and Duy Nguyen, with Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Oh in supporting roles, the show, which premieres on Apr. 14, marks the culmination of almost a decade of development.


Park, the renowned South Korean director known for movies such as “Oldboy,” “The Handmaiden” and “Decision to Leave,” said he first encountered “The Sympathizer” in 2017, when executive producer Niv Fichman (“Blindness,” “BlackBerry”) flew to South Korea to meet him about possibly making the show. Park then read the novel and was “hooked” by the book’s le Carré influences and the “duality” of the narrator.


“Even before this show, I was always interested in exploring East versus West,” Park said to Variety through a translator, remarking that he was also intrigued by the idea of adapting the “colorful prose” to the screen. The director was intent on not only preserving the heart of the novel but also emphasizing certain aspects of the story in ways that couldn’t be done on the page. The prime example of this, he notes, is Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the four most prominent American characters in the story: a CIA agent, a congressman, a professor and a film director working on a movie that directly riffs on “Apocalypse Now.”


“That’s something you can’t do in the literature, to have one individual play various roles,” Park says. “But in terms of visual medium, we can afford to do that by having one actor play all these different characters, to portray the idea of this system of America having four different faces.”


He adds that the Oscar-winning actor’s performance “evolutionized” all four characters.


“[The CIA agent] became more complex; Professor Hammer became more humorous. [For the] congressman, we heightened the specific occupation he would have and the auteur, he was elevated so that it would be more realistic. The auteur became more of a character who is self-reflective rather than narcissistic.”


Downey, fresh from his Oscar win for his performance in “Oppenheimer,” described his work in “The Sympathizer” as “a great opportunity and a challenge” at an HBO event in April.


“I feel like the exploitation and appropriation and marginalization of peoples is something that I witnessed in my many decades in this medium of film and TV,” Downey said. “It was really interesting to have the mirror held up and say, ‘How would you like to represent all of the different ways in which you’ve witnessed these degrading acts take place in society, in media, in the way the culture assumes the other is meant to be made small and just part of its story?’”


Nguyen said in 2017 that he wrote “The Sympathizer” as a mode of resistance against the idea that “minority writers are expected to be translators to majority audiences” and that “the novel’s story is, in one dimension, a translation of American culture to a Vietnamese person.”


One of the many ironies of translating the novel to the screen, though, is that the series had to be produced with the HBO audience in mind, i.e., accounting for American viewers. “The Sympathizer” already had proven commercial appeal, with nearly 500,000 paperbacks sold — but still, there is a tension to the process that Fichman and Susan Downey both acknowledge.


“You do need to maintain the integrity and the intelligence and the perspective of the story and at the same time you’re asking HBO to shell out a lot of money to make this as great as it can be,” Downey told Variety. “So you want to make sure that you can capture the audience.”


Fichman attributes the series’ “balance” to the plurality of perspectives within the various teams that produced “The Sympathizer.” He and McKellar are from Canada, while Park is from South Korea. To get the series made, they needed American partners who understood what they were trying to accomplish.


“We started it internationally but we needed to land the plane in Los Angeles, and so when Susan came on board with her incredible team and also HBO, we were able to balance that international perspective and more auteur vision with a really strong American narrative and American narrative drive, which is what we always coveted,” Fichman said.


“There’s been a more kind of global market for watching things. People are open to watching things with subtitles generated in different countries and all of that, but at the same time, you sort of put it in your head, ‘Well, that’s a story from this country, that’s a story from this country,’” Downey added. 


“I think the idea that this is, as Niv said earlier, it’s packaged up in a very American storytelling way, but it is not an American story.”


The first episode of “The Sympathizer” premieres on HBO and Max on April 14 at 9 p.m. ET, with the remaining episodes airing weekly on Sundays.


Written by Rachel Seo


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