How the film diverges from the book, whilst keeping some things the same.
Published as part of a short story collection, Drive My Car is one of Murakami’s finest short stories. But it’s not particularly dramatic, strange, or interesting. Nothing would suggest that it would make a particularly cinematic film. But here we are, with the most critically acclaimed Imternational film of the year, and now the winner of Best Foreign Film.
The short story
Taking the title of the short story form a Beatles story, the main character is another Murakami proxy. He’s introduced as a widower, and his wife is mentioned as being someone he was in love with but perhaps thtere were things about him that he never understood. Then there is an actor who had an affair with the wife right up until she died. Finally, the third main character is the driver. These characters appear in the same form in the film, more or less. But the film adds several characters who don’t exist in the book. Instead of the book’s limited dramatis personae environment, the film goes for a more expanisive cast that is closer to the previous works of the firector rather than the Murakami story.
The wife is wonderfully played in the film; a mixture of eroticism, sadness and strength by Reika Kirishima. We see that she loves her husband very much. And we know this before the scene where the main character accidentally finds her making love with another man. Yet the film makes this revelation somehow boring and not as surprising as it should have been; leaving us to wonder if the man had always believed that his partner was unfaithful.
Both book and film make it clear that the main character was waiting for his wife to explain her infidelity, but she dies the same evening. I thought that the film hinted that her death was a suicide, but later we’re told that she had a cerebral heamorrhage. This could have been caused by a blunt object to the head – yet the film never looks at the possibility of her being murdered, or that it could have been a suicide. The absence of the wife is a massive part of the book. Yet the character in the film shows less regret than we would believe possible for one who has lost their partner of twenty years.
The book largely uses conversations between the driver and director to reveal what happened when he struck up a friendship with the actor his wife had an affair with. These are some of the best parts of the story – tense, exciting, and we don’t know where the story will turn next. Yet these conversations aren’t even used in the film. It’s an example of why Murakami has always presented such a challenge to directors adapting his works for the screen. The character’s internal monologues in the first person are what gives the writing its power – but this is difficult to translate to a visual medium.
The actor is presented as a rather timid man who is attractive to the women without having any strong characteristics. He’s more of a threat in the book and his outbreaks of violence are easier to accept, especially as they are grounded in alcoholism.
I can’t say that this film has done a bad job of adapting the story. In some ways it’s very original – it borrows some details from other stories in the same collection and it works. A lot of the stories that the wife tells him come from Scheherazade in the same collection – and Hamaguchi manages to interpolate these within the story of Drive my Car without losing the cohesion of the narrative.
Yet it doesn’t have the mysterious Murakami quality you get from reading the book. What the film does have that the book doesn’t – is a powerful scene where the actor/director is comforted by a Korean-signing actress who tells him to carry on living, it could and should have been the ending. Yet the film ends with the driver now living on Korea but driving Yusuke’s red Saab. It’s an oddly flat ending that really lacks an emotional catharsis that the film had led us to expect. The film has found favour with critics who found something more in the film than I did. It’s said to show another side of Japan, and is even being touted as a tourist advertisement. Yet the film shows very few famous landmarks that we would expect to see. Perhaps this is inevitable from a film that wants to focus on the banal reality at the expanse of any wonder. Yet it’s an oddly cold, uninvolving film, and it’s not been a success in Japan, with people largely ignoring it for bigger homegrown films such as Demonslayer.