Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

Against all expectations, "To the Wonder" opened with a rating of 8.5 on Douban, making it this year's top-rated Chinese drama on the platform. This long-anticipated work has been stirring up speculation ever since its announcement under the "Microdust Theater" banner. On one hand, the challenge lies in adapting essays into a drama format; on the other, the intense competition among theatrical productions on streaming platforms makes the debut of a new label quite suspenseful.

After the premiere of "To the Wonder," discussion about the series has been vibrant across major social platforms, with topics focusing on the natural scenery, mother-daughter relationships, and clashing viewpoints. The series tells the story of Han Chinese girl Li Wenxiu (played by Zhou Yiran), who grew up in the countryside of Altay. Dropping out of high school, she moves to a big city to make a living and pursue her literary dreams. After facing setbacks, she returns home to run a small shop with her mother (played by Ma Yili). There, she meets a Kazakh youth, Batai (played by Yu Shi), and gradually discovers the beauty and meaning of life.

Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

At this year's Beijing Film Festival, "To the Wonder" held an advanced screening event. When asked why she chose to create such a drama, director Teng Congcong stated, "On the vast land of China, there are various stories happening all the time, and many fascinating themes to explore. This is the duty and responsibility of creators. Time always moves forward, and sometimes the audience's thoughts may even be ahead of the creators. We should aim to be slightly ahead of the audience."

Describing it as "being slightly ahead of the audience" highlights the pioneering spirit of "Microdust Theater." The everyday lives of ordinary people, the frontier grasslands, and poetic, lingering shots. These themes and content may make the drama a niche hit rather than a mainstream blockbuster. However, the adventurous spirit of valuing quality over viewership numbers in its debut work is enough to set "Microdust Theater" apart as uniquely distinctive.


Prose Adaptation Episode "To the Wonder" Gets Made

Adapting an prose into a television series is no small feat. The success of such a venture depends on the ability to develop a cohesive narrative while retaining the sparkling moments of the original prose. In Li Juan's creative output, "To the Wonder" is one of the most republished collections in her "Altay" series. Her writing is straightforward yet poignant, filled with deep emotions, and the book lacks a continuous thread, featuring instead interesting people, vast wilderness scenes, and intense personal experiences.

Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

Upon first viewing, "To the Wonder" impresses with its high-quality aesthetics. The color palette is soft and beautifully meticulous. The use of wide shots and slow-motion techniques makes the series seem more suited for the big screen than a TV format. The cinematography doesn't show off but rather steps back to allow nature to take center stage, letting the mountains and rivers of Altay flow with poetry and vitality.

The series includes many wide shots focused on horses, camels, and flocks of sheep; snow, mountains, and grasslands, all infused with an expressive and lyrical atmosphere that allows viewers to feel the romance of the land, aptly described as "cyber oxygenation." This harmonizes with Li Juan's writing, which conveys a deep love for ordinary life.

Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

The main narrative revolves around Li Wenxiu, her mother Zhang Fengxia, and the Kazakh youth Batai. It begins from Li Wenxiu's perspective. A high school dropout working in a restaurant, she harbors dreams of becoming a writer but struggles to find her voice. Socially ostracized by her coworkers and emotionally lost, she returns home after losing her job to live with her mother.

The main storyline: struggling in the city, returning home, discovering the beauty of life, is clear. Starting with Li Wenxiu as the focal point, the narrative branches out into two subplots involving her relationships with her mother and Batai, integrating humorous and amusing segments from the prose into the main narrative. True to her name, Zhang Fengxia exudes a heroic air, running a small store on the grasslands by herself. Despite the challenges of extending credit and other business difficulties, she perseveres.

In the series, Zhang Fengxia is portrayed as wise and straightforward. She sometimes offers philosophical musings, such as, "To make more money and live a better life, you have to go further and live a harder life." She also advises her daughter about the difference between usefulness and uselessness, cautioning that being free doesn't mean being without purpose. Sometimes, she's playfully evasive, exemplified by her response when asked where the salt is: "The salt is in the sugar pot, the sugar in the soda pot, don’t touch the salt pot; it has laundry detergent," masterfully capturing the essence of confusion studies.

Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

The interactions between Li Wenxiu and Batai are humorous and provide most of the series' comic relief. Batai teaches Li Wenxiu to ride a horse, and despite her struggles, he bluntly remarks, "Although you are clumsy, my horse is smart." When he warns, "Don't scare it," Li Wenxiu mistakenly thinks he's speaking to the horse and quickly assures she's not afraid, only to realize Batai meant not to startle his horse. His straightforward manner is reflective of the Kazakh's candid nature.

These adaptations make the characters vibrant and three-dimensional. The series weaves together themes of familial love, romance, and the simple life of the herders with an exotic flair, creating compelling narratives. The occasional wide shots not only enhance the storytelling but also add depth to the series, setting a benchmark for adaptations of essays. This adaptation retains the essence of the original essays without heavy-handed morals or preaching. Through Zhang Fengxia's wise words and Batai's candor, viewers find a relaxed wisdom and rediscover a simplicity that soothes their weary souls.


New Ideas for Drama Series Adaptation

The success of "To the Wonder" certainly introduces some innovative directions to the market, notably in artistic ambition and work adaptation. The production team behind "To the Wonder" clearly indicates that the series leans heavily towards artistic cinema. Director Teng Congcong, known for her work on the editing of "Wangdrak's Rain Boots," a Tibetan film produced by Wanma Caidan with a strong ethnic flavor, has also directed "Send Me to the Clouds," which exhibits a distinct feminist perspective—elements of which are reflected in the series.

A memorable scene in the series involves a female author discussing her writing as merely a hobby in the face of criticism from her husband and societal expectations to be a devoted wife and mother, embodying a sense of resignation. This segment touches on Virginia Woolf's famous assertion that "every woman needs a room of her own," a theme rarely explored in domestic Chinese drama. Moreover, a scene in a bathhouse featuring three generations of women presents their interactions without the male gaze, instead conveying warmth and emotion, showcasing the female director's understanding of women's relationships.

Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

The producer, Da Peng, has pursued artistic endeavors alongside his commercial projects, from "A Final Reunion" to "The Reunions," demonstrating his exploration in content expression. Such a director-producer team ensures that the output is contemplative and avant-garde. Adapting an essay into a drama series doesn’t focus on replicating the original text, as essays typically lack strong dramatic conflicts and plots. Instead, essays pursue a lyrical form of expression, and "To the Wonder" consists of numerous intriguing snippets woven into a coherent narrative with a storyline.

The creative choice to incorporate the story of Li Juan, the author, by using her life experiences as a narrative anchor in a semi-autobiographical adaptation, allows viewers familiar with her works to see reflections of Li Juan in the character Li Wenxiu. The brilliant moments from the book become vivid highlights in the drama, avoiding the controversies of excessive fictionalization while enriching its depth. This approach not only serves as a model for future similar projects but also signifies the discovery of a broader source of work from essays, benefiting content creation significantly.

Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

There is a rich vein of similar essay-style literature in the realm of pure literature that, if adeptly handled, could introduce many new works to the market and potentially spark a trend in adapting essays into screenplays. Whether such an approach will prove successful in the long term will depend on market feedback after the series concludes. This exploration opens up promising new possibilities for creative adaptations, potentially enriching the storytelling landscape with the depth and introspection that essays can provide.


A New Industry Trend?

The introduction of platforms like "Microdust Theater" by iQIYI represents a new trend in the dramatization of streaming content, signifying a fresh approach within the industry. "To the Wonder" stands as a pioneer project under this banner, presenting a unique blend of artistry and intellectual property adaptation that's nearly unmatched in China's current drama landscape. Such niche, artistic, and unconventional content only becomes feasible with a sufficiently segmented market. Its brief four-day broadcast period set a record within the mini-drama format on iQIYI, demonstrating its groundbreaking nature.

Internationally, "To the Wonder" was nominated for the Best Long Drama Series at the 7th Cannes Series Festival, a noteworthy achievement that aligns it with "Why Try to Change Me Now," which was featured at the Berlin International Film Festival. Both dramas share a literary origin and a focus on visual and auditory effects, potentially paving the way for high-quality Chinese mini-series to make inroads into the global market.

Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

Beyond its prospects on the international stage, "To the Wonder" has explored innovative collaborations in cultural and tourism sectors even before its release. iQIYI announced a "New Ecology of Cultural and Tourism Cooperation" initiative involving the Xinjiang Department of Culture and Tourism, Altay's local tourism board, and Huacheng Publishing House. The project's slogan, "Read a good book, watch a good drama, visit a beautiful place," encapsulates its promotional strategy.

This structure not only broadens the impact of the literary work through its dramatization but also promotes book sales and boosts local tourism, benefiting all parties involved. The cooperative model includes the creation of cultural symbols, the establishment of ecological funds, dedicated tourism lines, offline events, and a membership system, all of which are highly actionable and provide new perspectives for future drama productions.

Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

Another upcoming series under "Microdust Theater" is "What a Wonderful World," starring Zhao Liying and Yin Fang, currently in production. This drama blends light sci-fi and mystery elements, including multiple personality themes, and is directed and written by Xu Bing, known for his work on Tencent Video's "X Theater." While "What a Wonderful World" appears to differ from "To the Wonder" in its emphasis on suspense and thrills, the two series share a platform that suggests a common standard of quality, although the exact nature of this standard will be tested upon the release of the new series.

The emergence of "Microdust Theater" marks a strategic evolution from non-existent to refined, with platforms increasingly focusing on high-quality, short dramas that leverage experimental explorations to enhance cultural impact and user engagement. As audiences' tastes become more sophisticated and their time more limited, short-form dramas that offer "new aesthetics" and "new audiovisual experiences" like "To the Wonder" are poised to attract more viewers. This presents both new opportunities and challenges for content creation. As viewers, we eagerly anticipate more such innovative offerings.

Adapting Prose to Drama: The Artistry Behind To the Wonder

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