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How the creators of HBO’s The Sympathizer turned the bestselling novel into a darkly comic adventure for TV | Radio-Canada News


In appearance, Viet Thanh Nguyen The sympathizer is the ideal target for adaptation.

First of all, it’s a novel – one of the most lucrative source materials for an industry perpetually hungry for existing intellectual property and a built-in audience.

Second, it’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, a badge of honor that has already proven a boon to similar adaptations like Projector, Driving Miss Daisy And Glengarry Glen Ross.

But in reality, there was a problem. Not only is the story complex – following a supposed communist double agent as he travels between America and Vietnam during the Vietnam War – it is also deeply intertwined with representation and culture.

“The literary industry and the entire social and cultural system of the United States strive to encourage writers of color to write for white people,” Nguyen was quoted as saying. the Guardian after his Pulitzer win in 2016.

“If I had written the book for a white audience, I would have sold it for a lot more money and a lot more publishers would have bid on it.”

WATCH | The Sympathizer trailer:

Ngyuen signed on to work on the HBO adaptation and even recently stopped on the side of the road take photos with his family in front of the billboard.

But this enthusiasm generated by the final product does not erase the difficulty of bringing to the small screen a story so centered on the experience of the Vietnamese people. What makes it no less difficult is the fact that one of the show’s co-creators, Don McKellar, is from the other side of the world.

“It’s obviously not my heritage,” said McKellar, the Canadian actor and designer known for The red violin, Blindness and a host of Canadian television shows.

“It’s the story of Vietnam after the Vietnam War, of the Vietnamese diaspora community. It’s… no, I’m not associated with that.”

Six people stand in front of a wall of photos bearing the words The Sympathizer
McKellar, third from left, poses at an event in Toronto for the release of The Sympathizer. He says that although he feared that being from Canada would be an obstacle, he began to see it as an advantage because it allowed him to understand the sense of distance from America felt by the main character . (Alex Urosevic/Bell Media)

Canadian influence

He first got the call when his old friend and now co-creator Park Chan-wook – remembering their past experience writing a screenplay together – asked McKellar to help him shoulder the burden.

After reading the book – which focuses on a half-French, half-Vietnamese man who feels so conflicted and at war with his identities that he describes himself as a “man of two minds,” McKellar began to see this obstacle as an obstacle. advantage.

Being from Canada, he said, provides a unique mirror to the feeling of being American, but somewhat distant.

“We have this kind of distance from America, and sometimes we feel like we’re in the middle,” McKellar said. “So I think we’re well equipped for that.”

This feeling was injected throughout the finished product. It also explained how they could bridge the gap in what was primarily a dark story of oppression, war, and pain told in a sardonic, ironic voice.

This was accomplished in part by hiring Robert Downey Jr. for a quadruple role – the actor plays four roles in a sort of psychedelic comedy that only comes together in the finale.

Downey Jr. was the first name considered for the role, McKellar said, because it required a technically competent actor who could do more than “just play himself.” And after a meeting with McKellar, during which the actor riffed, improvised jokes about the characters and scenes, he was immediately hired.

A man dressed in a suit holds a file as he leans over a desk.
Xuande, who plays the Captain in The Sympathizer, says the character’s duality seemed inherent to him when he read the novel. (Hopper Stone/Warner Bros. Discovery/Associated Press)

Captain Cast

But the most important role was that of the star, the captain. What was needed was a physically fit young man who could speak English and Vietnamese better than average, not to mention be a talented actor.

McKellar said they were initially spoiled for choice, but eventually landed on Hoa Xuande, an Australian of Vietnamese descent.

LISTEN | What Viet Thanh Nguyen hopes viewers will take away from the adaptation of his novel:

On the coast11:27 a.m.Author Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about bringing The Sympathizer to life

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen talks with guest host Amy Bell about the importance of refugees telling their stories and what he hopes people take away from the upcoming TV show The Sympathizer, based on his book and his life.

After landing the role, Xuande had to undergo a two-week “crash course” to relearn her language and heritage.

Growing up in Australia, he said he felt a complex – but strong – connection to the country and never felt comfortable speaking Vietnamese.

And once again, what was an obstacle became an advantage.

“That’s the duality you see in the captain, that he’s never enough like that and that’s never enough,” Xuande said.

“You know, what part of himself does he identify with the most? What parts of himself does he love or hate? And that was something that I didn’t really like. I didn’t feel like I had to play too hard. It was inherent to me when I read the book.”

A woman holding a classical guitar looks on.
Canadian actress Sandra Oh appears in a photo from The Sympathizer. (Bell Media)

“Get on the other side.”

The book reads like a confession personally written by the Captain, so it was important to include the character’s voice. And although the narration is carried over into the series, some changes were necessary for a television adaptation.

Trying to get this inherently personal narrative from the page to the screen presented more problems than usual, as the series grapples with a complex war told from the perspective of a man sympathizing with each element and finding fault on him – without ever knowing it. where it belongs.

Their goal in creating the series, McKellar said, was not to avoid that, but to exploit it.

“It means, ‘Get on the other side.’ And there’s always another side,” he said. “It’s important to understand whether we’re going to be empathetic or objective when we discuss wars, (when) we discuss anything.”

“It’s kind of liberating, ultimately, to put aside these kinds of preconceptions that we have. And I think, I hope, that’s what people take away from it.”


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