The way the conversation is going, you’d think that Ron Bass, who co-wrote the film version of The Joy Luck Club with the novel’s author, Amy Tan, is one of the self-centered, oblivious males who populate Tan’s book.
Tan and Bass are doing promo for Joy Luck together, but it’s Bass, an entertainment lawyer whose previous accomplishments include scripting Rain Man, who does most of the talking. Even if a question is aimed directly at Tan, Bass helps to answer it: After all, he says by way of explanation, the relationship between him (credited as screenwriter/producer), Tan (screenwriter/producer), and Wayne Wang (director/producer), was “really a three-way partnership from the first day.”
So when Tan is asked how the multistoried novel was transformed into a script, Bass launches into a well-rehearsed monologue that starts with “well, sort of the way this began was my reading the book,” and rambles on for seven long minutes. He explains his “general theory of women and men,” which holds that the former are “devoted to understanding their own lives” while the latter are “afraid of being in touch with their inner lives.”
For all his bluster, you’d think that Bass—and not Tan —is Joy Luck‘s auteur, but his assertiveness doesn’t seem to bother her. She’s so un-Hollywood that she rarely goes to the movies herself, but has seen enough to be concerned about their depiction of Asian and Asian-American women. For a long time, she was reluctant to allow The Joy Luck Club to be made into a film. “I thought they might do a story about Asian- American women that would be frightening and awful….There was the potential of distorting images, of making, say for example, the women more exotic.”
“There was at times talk of turning one of the mothers into a Caucasian, turning half the cast into Caucasians to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience….I was perfectly willing to forget the whole movie thing.”
The day she received one option, says Tan, her husband called her to the TV to watch a movie whose title she can’t remember. It pictured Chinese women wearing “coolie hats and skintight dresses.”
“In another scene, one of the Chinese women had long red-lacquered fingernails and used her fingernails to stab a man in the back,” she says. “And this wasn’t a clip made in 1940; it was made in 1990.”
Tan was interested in collaborating with Hong Kong-born Wang (Dim Sum, Eat a Bowl of Tea) and met with him, but the pair figured that the chances of getting funding for a Wang-directed Joy Luck were slim.
“It wasn’t until we met Ron that we thought we had a chance at making the movie,” she explains. “Part of the problem was we didn’t know how to fit all eight characters. Ron had a structure in mind and knew how to talk about this movie in a way that made perfect sense, so that Wayne and I could see the structure and how to make it work.”
Working on the script (which Tan says she initially did not plan to do) provided her with an opportunity to tinker with the original story. At the party that frames the film, two of the younger women, Waverly and Rose, are shown with male companions, though their unhappy romances are left unresolved in the book. That kind of superfluous happy ending, shrugs Tan, “is something that you could do in a movie.”
A more significant change concerns the young Ying Ying, who in the book aborts her fetus to punish her cruel, philandering husband. In the film, she drowns her baby, something Tan describes as “a much more deliberate act.”
“It’s not to say I equate aborting a 6-month fetus with killing a 6-month-old baby. It’s just emotionally, that felt right. It had the power to show how much she had lost herself that she could kill her own baby.”
Her voice softens until nearly imperceptible. “That scene was what felt true to the emotions expressed in the story, the way that it was described to me.”
Tan reveals that the harrowing story is a true one—told to her by her mother. And then Bass interrupts with more Hollywood hype: That scene in the film has “awesome power,” he gushes. “The next day the people in the lab thought we had drowned the baby. They called us and said, “What did you do?’ It was incredible. Incredible.”