Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart fulfilled the “Book I Think Should Be Turned into a Movie” category of the PopSugar 2019 Reading Challenge. If you haven’t read Barry Hughart, go now.
Bridge of Birds is a self-proclaimed “history of ancient China that never was.” I’m not a historian and do not know who much Mr. Hughart made up, researched, or reinvented for the book, but it is a masterful historical comedy.
It’s a comedy.
The author mixes pseudo-history with mysticism, ritual, and humor to create two unforgettable characters on an extensive, danger fraught adventure. Meet Number 10 Ox, an extra-large teen with a great heart and Master Li, a man with a small flaw in his character. The two run all over China to save the children of Number 10 Ox’s village. I cannot think of a better story for a movie.
Hubby introduced me to the book back at the turn of the century. (Can we say that yet?) In fact, Hubby gave me many books when we first got together, Snow Crash, The Uplift War, Lord Foul’s Ban, and more. I gave him some too, but he’s still never read Pride and Prejudice. Anyway, he recommended all of Mr. Hughart’s novels as I love fantasy stories. Each was wonderful. And who can’t love a guy who gives you books?
So, why would this book make a great movie? First, I would have a strong caution to my movie producers: Cut the stereotypes.
I don’t think Mr. Hughart has too many stereotypes in the book. He runs through a variety of characters in the story. The women end up being shrewish, fat women, perfect maidens, or respectable wives. But the story was published in 1984, so I can kinda give them a pass on that, maybe. But to make it workable with today’s audience, they’d need to have the plethora of personalities from the novel.
Next, the adventure. Number 10 Ox and Master Li crisscross China. Could you imagine the background landscapes for such a film? The scenery alone would make the story worth seeing. The men venture out from Number 10 Ox’s village four or five times to find the magic ginseng root they seek. Think Indiana Jones, fewer spiders, more comedy, a larger purpose. Who doesn’t love a quest movie?
Also, the humor. The language of the book is laugh-out-loud. Most of the time it’s Master Li’s comments, the old con artist. “Error can point the way to truth, while empty-headedness can only lead to more empty-headedness or to a career in politics.” And “Immortality is only for the gods…I wonder how they can stand it.”
Lastly, the casting. I tingle with anticipation of the cast for the movie. I could see Jackie Chan as Master Li, owning the role. And perhaps Shao-Wen-Ho would be my Number 10 Ox. (He has the look though I’m not familiar with his work.) Or Jacob Batalon (Spiderman), but he’s Hawaiian, not Chinese. Then we’d need parts for people like Jet Li, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung (Henpecked Ho or Miser Shen) and Andy Lau. I could see Zhang Ziya (Memoirs of a Geisha, Godzilla) as Lotus Cloud (squee). I love John Cho too. He’s an amazing actor, but not Chinese either. if the producers and audience are game, we could cast other Asian actors, but I kinda see the movie like Harry Potter where everyone (just about) was British.
I hope someday to see Bridge of Birds in the theater.
I give the book 5 pieces of Jade and 5 pearls.