Mao's Last Dancer: Adapting the best-selling autobiography for the screen
"Mao's Last Dancer," the feature film adaptation of Li Cunxin's best-selling autobiography, is directed by Bruce Beresford. The film is being released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company on August 20.
The story began for producer Jane Scott five years ago when she read Mao’s Last Dancer.
The book stayed on the Australian Top 10 Bestseller List for more than a year and a half and currently on its 32nd printing. It has been published and sold in more than 20 countries.
A recommended adaptation
MAO’S LAST DANCER was recommended to screenwriter Jan Sardi by a friend and he was so intrigued by the story that he mentioned it to Jane Scott. Jan and Jane had already successfully collaborated on two films, the Academy Award-winning SHINE and, more recently, LOVE’S BROTHER. According to Sardi, “We each bought a copy and raced one another to finish it. Even before we were halfway through, we knew that it was a film that we wanted to make.”
Scott continues: “It immediately came across as an ideal book to be made into a film, although I must say I believe books don’t necessarily make good films due to the difficulty in translating their literary quality. But, in the case of Mao’s Last Dancer, Li had written a wonderful book – beautifully – and, of course, his story is riveting.
“Jan was the ideal writer for this screenplay because he has a great way of simplifying the writing into a visual style that a director can use as the background for his own vision – - he doesn’t let the literary quality get in the way. Bruce Beresford is the ideal director for much the same reason in that he is a great interpreter of storytelling.”
For Beresford, the script was irresistible: “You could describe it as another rags to riches story and there have been several in the history of movies. But, in this case, the rags were somewhat more extreme because Li Cunxin came from a background of incredible deprivation in a totalitarian country. Against these most staggering odds, Li achieved something monstrously difficult.”
Handling the book's large span
The first challenge for Sardi when adapting the book was to take a story that spans so many years and so much diversity – from Li’s rural Chinese peasant childhood to performing in front of the U.S. Vice President of America – and create an emotionally satisfying cinematic journey.
“One of the first instincts I had for telling the story was to begin on the day that Li is plucked out of his village classroom to go to Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy” says Sardi. “The idea of him being taken away from home, from his family, those whom he loves and being sent on an epic journey. And then, of course, I wanted to bring him home. There’s so much wonderful material in the book and what I set out to do was to follow the emotional line of Li’s story in a way that would make the audience feel as though they’ve been on this journey with him. It’s not easy to do in two hours, to distill a life in that way, but that’s what you have to do. It’s all about emotion.”
Sardi, who memorably wrote the screenplay of SHINE based on the life story of pianist David Helfgott, says he feels, in telling a real story about someone’s life, “this great burden of responsibility to get it right. Of course, you have to take certain liberties in terms of combining characters and compressing time because there is no way you can condense someone’s life into two hours. So, the goal, is to try to find a cinematic and poetic style of telling the story that takes the audience on an emotional journey and brings them back feeling transformed.”
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