Image courtesy of Weinstein Books

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny Interview

Ang Lee's hugely successful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars in 2000. Sword of Destiny, the long-awaited sequel, is now about to be released.

The companion novel by Justin Hill has just been published by Weinstein Books and the ALR is delighted to present subscribers with an exclusive extract in a special eBook supplement, now ready for subscribers to download from their ALR accounts.

If you're not yet a subscriber, sign up here for access to recent and forthcoming issues, and to download the eBook extract from Sword of Destiny.

In the meantime, we've been talking to Justin Hill about the book. Read on...


Working from a script is a new experience for you – how did you deal with the constraints of content and form in novelising the script?

I set myself some basic parameters from the start. While the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film had deviated in some major ways from the original books, I wanted to honour them as much as possible by bringing in as much of the original books as I could.

I learnt as I went along, but one of the first things I noticed when I took dialogue straight from the script to the novel was how flat it seemed without actors, setting, lighting, costume, camerawork etc. – all that ‘stuff’ that goes into a film and brings the script to life.

In a sense, I was my own producer, picking actors (or at least how characters appeared and acted in the novel), setting, time of day and all. Films work more through visual action, while the heart of the novel is more internal to the characters and their motivations.

Scenes often had to be reimagined – so you had the same set of conflicts and resolutions coming into and out of the scene – but what actually happened within the scene might change.

Writing a novel is also much slower than film making, so I started writing before the cast was announced, and ended just as the filming finished.

I was sent the final scripts, with all the changes that had been made, and it was fascinating to find that many of the scenes that I found very difficult to write – largely because they were unconvincing – were also changed during the filming process.


You've said that a script is a very bare thing. What do you have to do to flesh out a story based solely on dialogue and scene descriptions?

We’re all familiar with the process of turning a book into a script through major adaptations such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and how the story and character lists are shrunk to make them fit into the tighter film storyline. Well, the opposite is true with turning a script into a novel. You need to add a lot more to the story, so the reader has a rich imaginative experience. And you need to change the story, because films are very visual while novels work much more through interaction with the reader.

A novelist gives enough detail for the readers to evoke the experiences for themselves. In this way it’s a much more personal and intense experience for a reader, as they’re using their own life and experience and memory to fill in the gaps between the details. It’s much more cooperative.

Films have huge jumps of time and place that a watcher does not care about, but a reader is left thinking, ‘How did that happen?’


How helpful was your reading of Wang Dulu's original series in preparing for this project? How did the original series constrain how you wrote your adaptation? Do you see this as a ‘re-boot’ of the original?

Wang Dulu’s originals were extremely helpful in broadening the story and the characters, and also in bringing in some of the original story lines that were missing from the first Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film, as well as the sequel.

But his novels were very much of their time and genre and readership. These novels were written in the time between the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the rise of Communist China in 1949: meaning it had a lot of material that would translate very poorly into a modern novel.

There was a long cast of characters, extensive digressions, an episodic nature; and it relied on the wuxia genre, which is largely unknown in the West.

I saw early on that to be successful this would really have to be an adaptation of the spirit of the novel and script into a novel that a modern reader could read and enjoy.

My editor, in the way of editors, gave me the quick short-hand of something along the lines of ‘Game of Thrones set in China’ – but as he’s not actually read any George R. R. Martin, I think he was talking more about the broad appeal.

So I gave myself a lot of freedom, and rather than following Wang Dulu’s story, I wanted to capture the beauty and style and understated passion of Ang Lee’s film in my novel. It is much more a Justin Hill novel, in the end, than a Wang Dulu one.


What was it like to enter and absorb worlds already created by Wang Dulu and Ang Lee, and to create your own version, making it at once both faithful and distinctive?

I wrote my first book at the age of twenty-two, and carried on writing about China in fiction and non-fiction, historical and contemporary, for about twelve years. After writing Passing Under Heaven, I did feel that my Chinese veins had been mined to exhaustion and that it was time to move onto something new – so to be given this opportunity to revisit China in an entirely new setting was a delight. It’s a period that has begun to fascinate me – when China moves from the ancient to the modern – and Wang Dulu’s fantastical stories seem to reflect that imaginative flight from what is happening in his contemporary world.

I have been a keen follower of Chinese film since – well – since I used to cycle through small-town China in the early 1990s to watch Raise the Red Lantern or Farewell my Concubine, and would stare up at the Chinese subtitles with a mixture of wonder and bewilderment.

So I’d seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when it first came out, and loved the way Ang Lee had captured the beauty of Chinese art in film.

It was something I had very consciously tried to bring into The Drink and Dream Teahouse and Passing Under Heaven, so I think this was something that I was already running with, artistically.

Funnily enough, Ang Lee’s film company looked at making a film out of The Drink and Dream Teahouse when it first came out, so strangely enough, I wasn’t surprised that we ended up working – rather tangentially – together in the end.


How much did you draw on your own experience of living in China?

Hugely. I lived in a time and place in China where you could still touch that Old China. I remember specifically a student’s village I visited, where they had just been connected to the electricity supply, and the wonder of this still amazed the villagers. They had a traditional Shanxi compound house, with a toilet abutting the pig in his sty (he would grunt rather excitedly whenever someone made a trip to the loo!) and the father was so poor he only had one lightbulb, and would unscrew it and follow us about from compound to room to room as we ate dinner and then came inside to play mah-jong.

What is more, I was living in Shanxi Province, one of the cultural and historical hearts of China, with something like 70 per cent of China’s historical monuments being located within that province. It is also the area where much of the novel takes place, and so I knew the geography and seasons well.

There were many places like this, and I tried to bring a little of my favourite places of China into the story in some way as well: the gorgeous Lijiang, which had drawn Bruce Chatwin; and my personal favourite, Tiger Leaping Gorge, which used to be in the wilds before they brought electricity and blasted a road through.

I also went back to my favourite Tang Dynasty poets, and poured all this, and my love of China and the culture, into the book.


Your previous novel, Shieldwall, is historical fiction and deals with conflict and swordplay. Though the settings for that book and this one are completely different, what similarities did you find in the writing process?

There was a lot of similarity in that there was a large amount of action in the book. What I’ve found – generally – is that action is very hard to write well, and can tend to be a little boring to read. Novels are much more introspective than films, which veer towards the spectacular. So while action is important, especially in a wuxia film, much more compelling is the drama that the action creates. A simple rule is that battles are boring, but the run up to and the aftermath of, are compelling because that is where the characters either face their fears or come to terms with the consequences. 


What were the other big challenges in writing this book?

There’s a line in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that goes, ‘If you've done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe!’ Writing this novel was a list of not necessarily impossible things, but certainly things I thought I could not do as a writer.

I always thought of myself as a ‘finder’, not a planner. I was the first audience of the story. If I knew how the story was going to end, why would I bother writing it? Or so I thought. Here I had the story planned out in specific and precise detail, and still I found it incredibly interesting.

Another thing was the timescale. Publishing works well ahead of release, so I was writing this in 2014, with a tight schedule, made tighter as it was all tied up with filming and release dates and Weinstein Publishing. My editor and I decided on a tight time scale, which ended up being about 7000 words a week of delivered material, so we could get a solid first draft out. I was living in Hong Kong at the time, and apart from a week’s holiday in Thailand, I would sit down each day and aim to end the story 2000 words ahead of where I was at the beginning. I would write about ten thousand words, and then cut back drastically to leave myself at the end of the week with a good 7500. I would leave it over the weekend, read it Sunday night, go through last edits on the Monday, and then send it off and start again.

As a process this was completely alien to my usual process, which is story-led – a novel ending up at whatever seems to be its natural length. But I found it surprisingly productive and fun.


The book is a cracking tale, shot through with action, adventure, suspense and conflict; yet you made character development an important feature of the novel. Tell us a little about this.

All good stories focus on characters, whether they’re in film, novel or theatre – and as a writer, this is what compels me to find out what happens next. Deep character development was perhaps most lacking in the script, because I think that is the actor’s job – to show how a character has changed and developed, so it was open season for me.

I went back to Wang Dulu’s books to get an idea of what all his characters were doing before the books, and how to bring it into this story.


Strong women drive the story and are convincingly portrayed – what advice would you give to male writers on writing from a female perspective?

One of the attractions of the film and the story were the strong female characters – and it’s important to remember that these novels were being written at the time when the thousand-year-old practice of foot-binding was coming to an end, and women, fathers, prospective husbands, and families were rebelling against it.

I’ve heard people say that men can’t write women or vice-versa, and I think this is clearly nonsensical. If you follow the logical conclusion it means we can’t write about anyone but ourselves, now. The imaginative jump of putting ourselves into another’s experiences is one of the fabulous abilities the human mind has. We should practise it regularly.

How to write good females: get in touch with your feminine side, and imagine, with all the evidence you have at your disposal, and write.


You've said that you listened to the soundtrack of the first Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film over and over. How did you go about building the atmospherics of music into your telling of the story? Have you heard the soundtrack for the new film?

I like to write to music. It helps screen out noises that might disrupt my attention, and I tend towards music that is in a foreign language, or wordless, so there are no lyrics to disrupt my imagination.

One of the first things I did was to get the Oscar-winning soundtrack and to put it on as I worked on the novel plan. As anyone who has seen the film will know, there is a seamless richness and beauty to the original film and the music that accompanied it, by the Chinese (and fellow Hunanese) composer Tan Dun. It was a score that captured the tension between the individual and society; between love and duty; expression and restraint; sadness and beauty.

I don’t think I did anything consciously to incorporate this into the novel. I’ve a certain faith in the unconscious. As long as you put the right ingredients into a story-writing process, you can leave the rest up to the brain’s darker processes.  


The martial arts theme is closely associated with and jealously guarded by China and its film industry. How did you approach this tension and the need to write within an established genre while maintaining your own style and voice? Are there plans to make a Chinese translation of your novel?

As far as I know there are no plans for a Chinese translation of the novel… though wouldn’t that be interesting! It would certainly give academics something to get very excited about with ideas of transformation.

If there was any tension, I think ignorance is sometimes the best way of coping. I’m not actually a huge fan of martial arts movies. Not that I dislike them; they just don’t register much on my radar. With films about China, though, I’m on much firmer ground, and funnily I always thought of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon more as a Chinese than a martial arts film. I suppose that is a result of its success.

In terms of my own voice, I didn’t really have to worry about that. It’s how I write. I suppose an analogy is how singers sing. Even if they’re doing a cover version, they make the song their own. Distinctively so.


One of your books was banned in China... Do you have any apprehensions about this one?

No. While my first novel was banned in China, my second novel was translated in China a few years ago and I’ve been in and out of China many times since being banned – including winning the Friendship Award from the Governor of Hunan in 2005.


And following from the previous question, did you consciously appeal to the Western or international reader in your book?

I believe that the first reader of any book is its writer. So the book was written in a way that I found personally satisfying. When I write I don’t consciously try to make the book appeal to a Western or non-Western audience, but I was aware that most readers would not be as aware of Chinese manners and customs as I am, so I made sure that I wrote the book in a way that the foreignness of the material was not a barrier, but a lure to the reader.


Tell us something about your interest in fantasy fiction and war gaming. Did this interest help in the writing of the book?

The wuxia genre is the fantasy world for Chinese stories, in the same way that our fantasy has been largely populated by our own Germanic and Celtic traditions, and Tolkien in particular.

It is a world of martial arts, fox spirits, kung fu, silken sleeves, and ancient artefacts. There is ‘magic’ – not so much in the Harry Potter sense, but in the sense of powers that come from study and practice, which gives the warrior superhuman powers. 

I once saw a man, who practised qigong, hold a car battery in one hand and a raw fish in the other. As he channelled his energies, the fish began to steam, and he brought it to show us. The ends of the fish were still raw, but in the middle the fish was cooked. That seems like magic to those of us who do not understand it.

I just took a world where a man can cook a raw fish on his hand, and turned up the colours and the brightness a little to bring that world to life.


What's next? This project came after Shieldwall, when you were in the middle of working on the much-anticipated continuation of the series. How is that progressing?

It’s coming along well. It’s going to be called Viking Fire, and it will come out in November this year. It’s the life story of Harald Hardrada, the Norwegian king who died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. I grew up close to the battlefield and have recently moved back, and can see the hills where he died from my front door. It feels very strange, having been imagining his life from Hong Kong, to come home and see the places I have been writing about. 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is published by Weinstein Books.


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