Friday, April 19, 2019

I read Anna and the King of Siam and the film and musical adaptations of this story are pretty much just fanfiction.

I recently read Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, because I wanted to go to the original source material to see what it was about as I've appreciated the adaptations: The King and I by Rogers and Hammerstein and Anna and the King by Director Andy Tennant (came out in 1999 starring Jody Foster and the Draco Malfoy kid, Tom Felton). Upon finishing it, I saw few similarities between the source of the story and the adaptations. I think I'd actually be more comfortable saying that both the King and I and Anna and the King are actually fanfiction. On one hand, its disappointing to discover this. On the other hand, I enjoy the fan fiction much better than the source material.

Margaret Landon's book is a dry and boring read. Much of it is filled with political details rattled off in rather encyclopedia-like form, and the politics as it were has much to do with slavery. Who owns this slave and who owns that slave and what a person can do to said slave, including all of the wrongness of such actions literally permeates the tale. The schoolteacher details are few and far between. In the musical, they would have you believe that it was Tuptim who became infatuated with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. But in Landon's book, it is a woman called Son Klin who actually renames herself Harriet Beecher Stowe Son Klin. This woman in the last parts of the book, sends Anna Leonowens a letter that includes the following:

"I am wishful to be good like Harriet Beecher Stowe...and never to buy human bodies again, but only to let go free once more, and so I have now no more slaves, but hired servants. I have given freedom to all of my slaves...."

 As for Tuptim? She wasn't a gift from the small and weak country of Burma, but someone who just caught the eye of the king while pouring the foundation for a new temple in Bangkok. Her family noticed, offered her as a gift to the king, and he pulled her into his harem. She didn't like this as she was betrothed to a monk so she escaped by dressing up like a male monk and hid in the monastery. She was discovered and swore that even her betrothed had no idea that the person hiding in the sanctuary of the monastery was a woman because her disguise was so good. It didn't matter, and the king had both of them executed in front of Anna's house (because he wanted to send a personal message to Anna Leonowens who disagreed with the execution most loudly) and then later, the king realized that Tuptim and the monk were innocent and proclaimed both of their souls having achieved Nirvana and erected a temple on the place where they were burned to death (in their honor). Weird, right?

Additional details from the book? For the majority of the text, Anna and King Mongkut disliked each other. She thought he was a tyrannical despot, and he thought she was an impossible woman. It was only at the end of the book when Anna was back in England that she realized they had become "friends." There wasn't even a hint of romance between these two, and she never once thought of him as handsome. Also she got assaulted several times from people who were jealous of her influence with the king, or just disliked her for being an opinionated woman. She got knocked unconscious once when she was in the garden and someone struck her in the head with a rock.

She also had two different houses and some Muslim servants. In one scene, she cleans up a house that's been given to her using slaves. In another, she moves to one that's just right outside the palace walls.

The whole book is dripping (and nigh overwhelmed) with the issue of slavery. Slaves come to Anna's door on a 24-hour basis, begging this and that, and for her to beseech the king over some wrong. It happens so often that she becomes known as the white angel to the Siamese. She also seems to influence the next king, King Chulalongkorn, to such an extent that he becomes the greatest Siamese King by freeing all the slaves, outlawing prostration (which is essentially groveling on the floor before a superior person), and bringing the country of Siam into the modern world. The issue of slavery is so potent within the pages of Anna and the King of Siam, that it is pointed out that the reason the streets are so narrow between buildings was due to the caste system. There was no one in the entire country who wasn't subservient to someone else, so there was no need to make a street wide enough for people to walk side by side. There was only a need to make room for one while the other threw himself on the ground and was walked over by the superior individual.

There are (in fact) so little details of Anna actually teaching school that it can pretty much be summarized with the sentence, "Anna taught school." The bulk of the pages is made up of Anna being a kind of technical writer for the king, sending off documents, planning parties for the English, and defining words for the king when the printed dictionary failed to do so. She was on call day and night and pretty much at his mercy. And I repeat, there was no love between these two.

Anna's son Louis might as well be a footnote. He's hardly given any dialogue, and Anna (to be honest) spends much of her headspace worrying about her daughter Avis who has been shipped off to England for education (she's the older sibling). It does mention that as a grown-up, Louis returns to Siam and spends a storied military career as the right hand and most trusted advisor to King Chulalongkorn. I thought that was interesting.

None of the movie adaptations cover the betel nut either. This tropical nut has some kind of addictive property of which I am unfamiliar. Practically everyone in the country chews this nut, and it stains the teeth black, which they found attractive. So all of the Siamese women in these adaptations should have black teeth (and they don't). I find it remarkable that this detail is completely missing from the film adaptations of this book.

One of the things that I find fascinating about visiting "the classics" is how boring and poorly written they actually are. These things are packed with historical details and significance, but without computers to go back and make editing simple, you can see how a lot of them read as personal memoirs and are filled with details like how to whitewash walls, or how big the palace was, or what the dungeons were like for the people sent there to fester while the king decided upon a sentence for whatever offense they committed. Modern books have such an incredibly high standard to maintain for traditional publishers to take an interest in them. When I read a modern book by Random House or some other publisher, the difference in action, the conciseness of language, and the emphasis on narrative style is so controlled that I have to conclude that many of the classics, like Anna and the King of Siam, would be unpublishable in today's world. It would be garbage, and there certainly wouldn't be musicals and movies made from the source material. But that's just it...these novels are a time capsule of an age where low standards (which were the highest of standards back then) set the bar. Just like nearly everything in today's world, things are harder. It's harder to get traditionally published, it's harder to make a living, it's harder to buy a house, its harder to get into a good school, it's harder to find time to take a vacation, it's harder to buy a new car, etc. etc. etc. (yes that's my homage to The King and I). But of course, there are tradeoffs in healthcare, medicine, technology, and tons of other things.

Has anyone else read Anna and the King of Siam and come to these same conclusions? Any fans of Margaret Landon out there?


  1. I haven't read or seen it. But Tony Laplume and I were talking about Don Quixote today and it's a similar situation that Man of la Mancha has little similarity to the source material. If you compare Camelot to original Arthurian legends it's probably the same too.

  2. The original Little Mermaid vs the Disney movie is another example. Most Disney fairy tale movies vs source material really.

  3. Yeah, we've definitely learned a lot in how to make narratives more interesting. I think possibly all those details were there as they were writing down things that wouldn't have appeared elsewhere. It's not like they could link to a YouTube video showing more detail so the action of the story could continue. And they had to assume their readers didn't know to what they were referring.

    There were lots of liberties taken with older books in older movies. From what I understand, there's a similar disconnect between The Sound of Music and its source material.

  4. You also have to remember that different eras had different standards (although even by its own standards Moby-Dick was received poorly even though it's brilliant). My sister tried reading Les Miserables but found too much history in it. What you discovered, I think, is that the plot of Anna and the King of Siam was boiled down to its essentials, that it was basically turned into a metaphor. By learning how to like each other, they were able to achieve great things. As you noticed, if you focus on the things that originally set them apart, it becomes hard to notice what might unite them. But for contemporary readers, they would probably have been focusing on the uniting elements, because for them the discord would be an everyday thing.

    Which kind of makes the whole thing more relevant than it's been in years...

  5. I've never read that source book but I've read enough Victorian non-fiction to know how the writers were usually ponderously meticulous in recording facts, and that the British Empire was built not just by men but by armies of formidable women in hoop skirt (and later the bustle) who seemed determined NOT to be exciting in print.

    And I really agree with you that many though not all of the old "classics" are not well written by today's standards. Stendahl left me cold. I tried my best to get through "Frankenstein" but gave up after the first few garrulous chapters and decided that the classic 1933 (or was it 1932?) film with the flat-headed monster and the crazy scientist in the castle was a brilliant creation and a vast improvement on the book. But then, sometimes Hollywood gets a "classic" so right the original book can't compare to the film. Dashiell Hammett's books are for good reason not widely read today, but The Thin Man movies and The Maltese Falcon are brilliant film examples of storytelling.