The Painted Veil – book vs movie

  The 2006 movie adaptation of the Painted Veil, a novel written by Somerset Mangham in 1925, romanticises the resolution of the marriage of Walter Fane and Kitty, an English frivolous socialite. (Spoiler Alert!) In both presentations of the tale, Kitty married Walter in haste for the wrong reason – not for love but to get away from her overbearing mother since Walter’s occupation as a bacteriologist is stationed in Hong Kong (or in the movie, Shanghai), allowing her a convenient escape from London. However, Walter proved to be nothing of an ideal husband. He is boring, unused to social situations and overly absorbed in his work. Falling into yet another trap, Kitty decides to get out by committing adultery with Charles Townsend, a British vice-counsel and a womaniser. Upon discovery, Walter turns into a revengeful monster and brought Kitty to Mei Tan Fu, an imaginary cholera-infected village along the Yangtze River in China, claiming to volunteer as a bacteriologist, but in reality, desired for the most painful and lonesome death of his wife. I believe that while the movie offers a vivid visualisation of the deadliness of Mei Tan Fu, which is no better than the couple’s relationship, the book draws a more realistic and grave conclusion of the marriage.

  In my opinion, the novel portrays a more down-to-earth and convincing version of the tale. Not only is Kitty’s adulterous betrayal unforgivable and deeply humiliating to her husband, one should bear in mind that the novel was written and set in the 1920s, when the view of marriage was more rigid and the idea of sexual betrayal was highly scandalous and utterly unacceptable in society, proved by Walter’s ultimatum, a threat of divorce on the charge of adultery. Even though Kitty tries to redeem herself by working in a nunnery in Mei Tan Fu for a greater cause other than her own wellbeing and begins to appreciate Walter for his noble and admirable deeds of self-sacrifice, it is crucial that we remember her reason to step out of her comfort zone – to get away from boredom. It is only when Kitty is forced to stay in the oppressive Mei Tan Fu, but not in London or in Hong Kong/ Shanghai that her shallowness subsides and compassion grows. Therefore, it is nothing but dramatic when the loving Walter chooses to forgive Kitty in the film production, while the unfeeling and cold Walter in the book is only reasonable. ‘It was the dog that died,’ he grudged in his last words when he himself, instead of Kitty, dies being infected with cholera. Thus, the novel provides a more human and down-to-earth development which I find more persuasive than the romaniticised version of the film.

  I also find that the film is obsessed with ending a tragic and loveless romance in a comedy. While the novel provides more insights on Kitty’s inescapability from her past mistakes and repeated sinning against her will, the movie ends in a redeemed Kitty living a life of repentance and atonement following the death of her beloved husband. Not only does she firmly reject Charlie’s advances in the end and declares that he is a person of ‘no importance’, she also names her son Walter in memory of her deceased husband. It is the novel, though, that portrays Kitty as a woman who tries to assert her independence and morality but fails as she falls not only on Townsend’s economic assistance but also his hands after her return to Hong Kong. The depiction of repeated failures is a tragic resonation of human nature that readers sympathise with, noting how we sometimes act against our conscience and will, but unlike children’s petty fights, regret for the rest of our lives. This, unfortunately, is what the rosy picture of reconciliation and romance in the film fail to convey.

  Nonetheless, this is not to say that the movie, as an adaptation, is ‘never as good as the original’ book. Not only does the comic turning point of the couple’s relationship visualises the Disney-like ending of the tragedy, it also provides an alternative that sheds a different light on human nature, illuminating the multi-faceted human psychology. Just as Walter is, at some point, an enraged and revengeful monster, so can he be a loving, compassionate and forgiving husband. On the other hand, the appealing lighting techniques of the film should certainly be appreciated. The back lighting of the adultery scene connotes not only of the sinfulness and secrecy of the act, but also how socially unacceptable it is, while the shot-reverse-shot in the ultimatum scene illuminates Walter’s animosity and hostility, and Kitty’s vulnerability and helplessness. Moreover, the props in Wang Xi’s room reveals her exoticness as a Manchu woman, which can be extended to the exoticness of China as a whole for the British, commending the amiability of Waddington who rescues her from the purge of Manchus in the Warlord Era and goes so far as to learn her language and be assimilated into her culture – a romance that contrasts starkly with Kitty’s and Walter’s, which has little elaboration in the book.

  In short, whilst the novel provides a glimpse into a gloomy yet persuasive turn of events, the film production offers a drastic turn for a romantic ending. Nonetheless, Walter’s initiative to head to Mei Tan Fu cannot be more vindictive. We are drawn the very question of when it is best for one to lift up her painted veil, a tainted disguise of purity and innocence epitomised by Kitty’s seamless fit into the upper-class London society. Perhaps, the answer is never. As Percy Shelley wrote, ‘Lift not the painted veil which those who live call Life.’


** feature image available on Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

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