I believe the news actually came out last month and, predictably, the internet was on fire.
The excitement was overwhelming. After all, it is Guillermo Del Toro who would helm the project with of Sherlock and Dr.Who as his co-writer. Even if you haven’t heard of Monster before, the fact that Del Toro himself wooed Naoki Urasawa, the original writer, for the adaptation right should say something about the caliber of the story.
Or maybe not. Allow me to give you a brief here.
Monster is about a talented neurosurgeon Dr. Tenma who made the decision against direct order to perform a life-saving brain surgery on a 12-year-old boy who was shot in the head. Little did he know that the little angel he saved is in fact a psychopathic killer who was to become the greatest criminal mind in Europe. A reunion ten years later sent Tenma on a manhunt to right what he had wronged.
Sound simple enough to make into a Hollywood movie, one might think. In fact, the news that came out over five years ago was that New Line had acquired the right for a movie adaptation. That sent me into a fit for a bit because Monster was anything but a simple manhunt story. Tenma didn’t started out being a righteous doctor. He had ambitions for his career. He was anything but a simple-minded good guy. The decision to save the boy which is the first pivoting point of the story was anything but a simple decision. That alone would probably take half-an-hour worth of screen time to tell. And this is just the first in 18-volume worth of material. Anybody who thought this might be a good idea for a movie was clearly insane.
Gladly, New Line never pushed the project. They’re smart enough to know that Monster is a single monstrous (please excuse the pun) piece that in no way could be made to fit the silver screen. My guess is that the success of series like Game of Thrones might play a part in the decision to switch format and make a TV series instead. In this way, they will have enough screen time to show the plot progression and character development. And believe me, there are a lot of characters and character development to show.
So I breathe a little easier knowing that they finally figure out the proper format. The fear now is how this interpretation is going to be like.
I hold my breath every time a manga adaptation is announced but doubly so when American entertainment industry decides to do it. The main reason is, and I realized this after I moved to North America, that our view of the world from the East and West of the Pacific are very, very different. How we see things leads to how we interpret things and how we retell it to the world. It is not just bad presentation that made me throw Hollywood’s version of The Ring at the TV set despite having Naomi Watt and all. I felt like the story was contorted to the point where the core values of the story wasn’t there any more. I only realized later that it was probably because the movie producers did not see and could not see the story the way the Asian fans did. It was as simple as us thinking differently. I was, in fact, on the wrong to expect that they could get it right at all.
I fear for Monster because the series relies heavily on audience inference; i.e. it relies on knowing how the audience thinks. The story over all is about the Monster, also known by the name of Johan Liebert, who actually has limited screen time but humongous presence as the force of evil in every story arc. Dr. Tenma acts as the audience’s surrogate in understanding this monster by trekking into Johan’s past, interviewing people who possessed parts of Johan’s story. The reason the protagonist has to be Japanese is because (1) Urasawa is Japanese and therefore can only interpret things in the Japanese way and (2) his main audience is Japanese. Johan himself, unlike Hollywood villains, never tells his entire story in his own words and leaves a large amount of work for Tenma, and effectively us, to do. There is a danger in losing the audience when this method of storytelling is applied to a different group of audience who has different background and inner working. People might just plainly not get it.
Urasawa actually lost me for a bit on the theme of Monster. It took me quite some time after finishing the series to understand that Monster is an examination of evil, its root, its role in human behavior, and how to deal with one’s own vice. Unlike Urasawa’s more recent work such as Pluto which is very clear on the theme, the examination of hatred, Monster is more about the manhunt and the character development. It might be that Urasawa was still developing his technique at the time — the script is clearly not in its best shape as far as I can tell — or he just didn’t think of the theme until later in the story. In any case, as much as I would like Del Toro to stick to the original, I would love the theme to be pulled out to the forefront, poked, and prodded in such a way that North-American audience can connect to as much as Urasawa’s fans on the other side of the Pacific.
I don’t know if it is intentional or not that this news came relatively close to the release of Pacific Rim, another Del Toro movie which clearly comes from the huge mechas and monsters genre of Japan — and I don’t mean it as a bad thing. With a good interpretation, Del Toro can prove to any skeptics that a concept from one side of the Pacific can in fact cross to the other side unharmed and unhinged, and it could work just fine. I can tell you that I want my pessimism to be proven wrong very badly right now so I can believe that Monster, when it happens, is going to be great.