'Swans' finds film nest

LONDON — “Wild Swans,” Jung Chang’s non-fiction blockbuster telling the turbulent history of 20th century China through the stories of herself, her mother and her grandmother, is finally set to become a movie, 14 years after it was first published.

The film rights have been acquired by London-based producer Eric Abraham of Portobello Pictures. Christopher Hampton (“Atonement”) will pen the adaptation.

Although the book was written in English, Abraham plans to make the movie in Chinese. Hampton will work with a Mandarin dialogue writer, and the director will likely be Chinese.

Abraham has previously produced movies in Czech (the Oscar-winning “Kolya”) and Russian (“The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin”), despite speaking neither language.

Jung Chang, who lives in London and is a friend of Abraham, has previously resisted all approaches from filmmakers, because of fears that a movie version would compromise the authenticity of her stories.

“She would never have wanted a Hollywood studio buying it and doing what they liked with it,” commented her film agent Lesley Thorne.

“The fact that Eric and Christopher want to make such a faithful adaptation is very important to Jung, because all the people involved are real. It’s very important to protect people who are still living in communist China.”

“It’s such a deeply personal story that I can understand her reticence,” Abraham said.

“Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China” is still banned in mainland China for its shocking and moving account of the lives of three women before, during and after Mao’s revolution.

It has sold 10 million copies worldwide, and been translated into 30 languages. It won the British Book of the Year award in 1994.

With the book banned in China, the chances of the film being shot there seem remote. But Abraham, a native South African, sees room for hope: “Apartheid, communism, it was unthinkable that they could suddenly fall apart, but it happened. With the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, there are some signs of a change. I can see a time when ‘Wild Swans’ could well be available in China,” he said.

“It a magnum opus, and we’re just at the beginning of a long journey. I imagine a film of this scale will take anywhere between two and five years to make, but were we able to have it ready in time for release in the summer of 2008, that would be wonderful,” he added.

The book starts with Chang’s grandmother in the early years of the 20th century, when Chinese girls still had their feet bound (a gruesome process graphically described in one of the book’s most memorable passages). She grew up under the Manchu empire and married a warlord.

Chang’s mother lived under Japanese occupation during the Sino-Japanese war. She and her husband became high-ranking communist party officials, but were persecuted and imprisoned for opposing Mao’s policies.

Chang herself briefly became a teenage member of the fanatical Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, but became quickly disillusioned by the violence of her comrades. After Mao’s death, she studied English and became an academic, leaving China in 1978 to study in Britain, where she has lived ever since.

The publication of “Wild Swans” made her a literary celebrity. Last year she and her historian husband Jon Halliday published a controversial and highly critical biography of Mao.

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