A Book Person on Film

Another season of college applications (this time for exchanges for our mandatory gap year), another flurry of college essays. This one was for Yale.

Write about a book, play, movie, piece of art – anything in literature or arts, classic or contemporary – that has affected the way you think.

I was always a book person. So it surprised even me when I knew it had to be a film. The truth is, I cannot narrow down any commentary on my personality to anything less than ten, maybe twenty books. But there is a singular film I immediately name whenever I am asked which one my favourite is.

I grew up in Eurocentric ‘international’ schools, and consequently had exclusively entertained myself with British and American media. I was never remotely interested in local pop music or TV shows, due in part to my shameful incompetence in my ‘mother tongue’. But the primary reason slunk in the beautiful blonde models plastered on our billboards (even though Hong Kong is 90% ethnically Chinese) and the sense of superiority enveloping the small but significant expat population. I had long internalised the ‘fact’ that Western means cool, and Chinese therefore uncool.

That is, until my parents tricked me into watching 3 Idiots with them. When I found out it was a three hour-long Bollywood film, like in an American sitcom, I groaned and rolled my eyes. See, extrapolating the ‘non-Western means uncool’ sentiment means Asian media can never be as worth my time – the scripts are lame, the actors gauche, the cinematography kitsch. But just half an hour in and I had wept for joy and for sorrow, froze with shock and suspense, and was struck dumb by its profundity and breathtaking visuals. This film dropped some fire wisdom, y’all. Go watch it.

When I left the theatre and Googled 3 Idiots on my father’s phone (I still had one of those indestructible Nokias then), I saw that it was already an immense international success. And like in an American romcom, that was the precise moment a life-changing revelation clicked: non-white people can be cool too. Foreign films can be cool, and not just in the francophone arthouse way. Foreign actors are ridiculously talented at singing and dancing and being hilarious and heart-breaking at once. Side note: Notice how I say ‘foreign’ when I am neither American nor British myself? Sure, Indian culture may not be my culture, but the sheer sensation that was this film ignited a desire to get to know my own culture, and to own it.

The second way 3 Idiots reshaped my self-identity may sound clichéd. A film unafraid to show student suicide and suffocating academic pressure, it was the first narrative to chip away at my belief that only my grades are worth measuring. They were the only area that I could see myself empirically excelling in. I had many interests (horse riding, running, music), but at most I was above average. And in the rat race to the best universities for the best jobs for the best life, it had felt futile to be anything but the best.

“Ever since we were young, we believed that life was a race… Man, even to be born, we had to race 300 million sperm.” – 3 Idiots

Because I knew there are countless people much smarter than me, this sense of futility only further dampened my self-esteem. Sure, phenomena like Harry Potter has lines like:

“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”

But 3 Idiots pierced the viscous film of un-relatability I had not even noticed was enshrouding my mind. It spoke from a culture similar to my own – one in which education is worshipped as the one sure way to success, and parents are willing to splurge inordinate amounts of money on marginally better schools.

Did 3 Idiots magically snuff out all my doubts? No. But fictitious though it may be, it proved how my empirical performance is not the best predictor of my future success. Do something meaningful, and you are successful. And I am confident that in my pursuit of medicine, I will find many things that are meaningful, and achieve them.

On the Merits of Young Adult Fiction

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis

When bubbling excitedly about a novel I have just finished reading, I am often met with the same uninterested shrug. “I don’t care for young adult books.” I see questions on Goodreads below new releases, anxiously asking whether they are adult books, because how improper would it be to enjoy something aimed at teenagers. So I cannot help myself but try to articulate how this folly against young adult literature is misinformed on multiple levels.

Level 1: There are two sides to every coin.

Young adult books are not by definition insubstantial – take The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, chock-full of literary and cultural allusions to rival (and better) most adult books I have read. Nor are they necessarily lacking originality – Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a favourite example. It is true that publishers are far more generous when it comes to green-lighting young adult books, which allows a much greater volume of less-than-stellar novels to be made available for public purchase. But obversely, this also enables fledgling writers to take greater risks with idiosyncratic ideas and writing styles. Most of my favourite authors were first found through their young adult books, rather than their adult ones.

And on the other side of the coin, adult books are not necessarily deliciously complex either. In fact, with the additional burden of having to prove themselves unconventional enough or controversial enough or profound enough, many just come off as pretentious try-hards, for want of a more elegant phrase. There are delicate balancing acts between showing and telling, and then there are broken sequences of such shapeless impressions that you wonder whether the author himself has any idea what he wants his readers to be mystified about in the first place.

Level 2: Do not judge a book by its cover (or blurb or genre).

Perhaps the irony is that even beautifully articulate and sufficiently phantasmagorical adult works are frequently shelved as ‘young adult’ books. Not because of their content or tone or whether the author usually writes for young adults. But because they are fantasy novels. I have seen The Night Circus and The Magicians in the young adult section in bookstores and on Goodreads. The problem with thinking of young adult and adult as genres is that they simply are not. They are audiences, both perfectly capable of reading sci-fi and romance and horror and thrillers set in sleepy suburbs. The distinction is better drawn between the themes that they are more likely to be interested in (perhaps adults are less inclined to read coming-of-age fiction, because it does not reverberate with their current circumstances).

In an effort to circumvent this preconception, yet another age group has been coined ‘New Adult’, which loosely encompasses the years between 18 and 30. Supposedly, the books in this category provide much better ‘insight’ than properly young adult books, because they show the protagonists’ life experiences gradually eclipsing their childhood innocence. Personally, I do not see why this label is needed at all. The primary purpose of many young adult books is precisely to explore this transition, albeit some fulfilling it better than others. But the same goes for whatever books might be in this new category. There are always well-written and less well-written novels, regardless of who you lump them with. Though I suppose, from a purely commercial perspective, it makes simultaneously marketing the books to young adults and adults easier. (Which simply supports my point that the separation between young adult and adult is often arbitrary.)

Level 3: Implications.

Besides, labelling any and all fantasy publications with relatively young protagonists as young adult, when combined with the presumptions discussed under Level 1, implies that adults have no time for such frivolous escapism. Which sounds rather dull and unfortunate to me. Surely, there is a reason that popular children’s books are cherished as tales for all to read? The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series… all classics today. They fill us with childlike wonder as they whisper lessons on love and friendship and courage and faith. Fantasy is no juvenile plaything to be trifled with.

I do hope that you are nearing the age where you will start reading fairy tales again. Or young adult for that matter. Or whatever book you like, without a care for these categories or what people might say.

Fantasy and Its Lessons on Love and Friendship

@cloudninekid
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, gifted to me by a dear friend.

My favourite genre has always been fantasy. Before our schoolwork started to actually matter, reading fantasy books took up the vast majority of my time. I recall an English teacher telling my parents that I “eat books for breakfast, lunch and dinner”. But with the impending examinations, I had largely failed to make time to read. It was only when I fell ill last term and could not revise that I picked up Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Before I knew it, I had torn through the entire book, and quickly admonished myself for neglecting to bring Deathly Hallows as well. Stoked by this brief tryst with my first enrapturing novel in a long time, I gradually rediscovered the immense pleasures of losing all sense of space and time – of falling deeply into daring adventures from perspectives sometimes wholly different from my own.

I think the fantasy genre commands so much appeal because of its unique ability to transport us to such extraordinary, enchanting realms. Certainly, you can still travel through time with other books, but nothing offers the same astounding variety of experiences as the fantasy genre. You can take your pick from worlds as bizarre as Pratchett’s Discworld and as plausible as Riordan’s and Rowling’s secret supernatural societies. Besides two books, a memoir and an epistolary novel chosen by Emma Watson for her feminist book club, every book that I have recently read belongs to the fantasy genre.

Having devoured so many of these books has had its fair share of lasting impacts, yet I have only just begun to consider how much they have shaped my personality and priorities. Another question that was posed by an American college was: what matters to you, and why? And my instinctive answer had been my family and friends. Of course, a multitude of other things, both corporeal and abstract, matter to me. But if I were to assume that the prompt was asking for the metaphorical capstone of my pyramid of importances, my loved ones easily take the top spot. In my admissions essay, I had briefly mentioned my love for fantasy books. But on further reflection, I see just how much I had taken their influence for granted.

In Percy Jackson, the titular character’s fatal ‘flaw’ is that he cares too much about his loved ones (hence, threatening to harm them can give antagonists critical leverage). Yet despite its negative label, Riordan’s portrayal of the trait establishes it as an admirable strength rather than a weakness. And in Harry Potter, the ability to love is hailed as the most powerful magic, greater than any potion or incantation. But why are fantasy books especially apt vessels for these messages? The fact that in Harry’s world, even in the midst of unimaginably frightening events, love is the linchpin of Voldemort’s downfall, is especially telling. The idea that something common to everyone – wizards and muggles alike – is, in fact, more powerful than all of the impossible feats we encounter in the entire series, truly demonstrates just how important our families and friends are. It is the exaltation of these ‘mundane’ emotions in fantastical scenarios that underlines their incredible importance.

Many other aspects of how I compose myself can also be attributed to fantasy books. In addition to an unfailing love for our family and friends, when following Frodo’s perilous journey across Middle-earth, or the multiple wars that the Pevensies must fight, or even Harry’s countless emotional and physical battles against an incompetent government, relentless bullying, numerous counts of ostracisation, and Voldemort himself, we learn the arts of perseverance, loyalty, unwavering courage to stand up to not only our enemies but also our friends, and holding fast to what is true and right. In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, even the youngest readers understand how the dishonesty of one and the ignorance of many can lead to the undoing of an entire kingdom. In Deathly Hallows, it is gravely clear how a thirst for power can lead even someone as wise and respected as Dumbledore astray.

The heroes and heroines of these books were my role models, much more so than most people I knew in real life. They instilled in me the belief that such a capacity for love and kindness, alongside strength of character, is the most important quality than one can ever hope to possess – more important than learnedness or sociability, which were undoubtedly primary concerns of the typical teenager.

A particular favourite:
“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”
Quite relevant in societies like Hong Kong, where life-size posters of academic tutors are plastered to the sides of double-decker buses.

Maybe I was biased, having never been a master of the social graces. In fact, I used to be so introverted I would hide in my room and pretend to be absent whenever visitors came to my family’s apartment. And so, I instead took pride in my determination to be quietly brave and kind and generous.

Indeed, you can argue that you can learn these life lessons through simple observations of the world around you. Or you may well have been taught by wise and loving parents. But, at least from my perspective, no methods can ever be as simultaneously entertaining and educational as spending hours in the warm embrace of exquisitely spun pages and letting one’s imagination run completely free.

Photograph by Christy Lau.