Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In his introduction to “The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka” (1995), John Updike said it is a testament to the Czech writer’s skill that his most famous work “The Metamorphosis” appears impervious to any visual adaptation. That novella, on a traveling salesman who wakes up one day transformed into a giant bug, derives its power, he said, from an amorphous terror that vanishes the moment the vermin is rendered in any straightforward way. Thus, the only way to truly “experience” the text is to read it and imagine it, for Updike the highest test of literariness.
But Kafka didn’t live at a time when people’s senses are so thoroughly bombarded by stimuli: from television and billboards and cinema, from relentless advertisement and hyperlinked “realities” and the broad commodification of images, resulting perhaps in a way of imagining that is increasingly — and productively — visual.
This is the kind of reality that literature and writers need to attend to in one way or another, and clearly some works are more suited to this way of imagining than others (language play, for instance, can be lost in a medium highly contingent on narrative). Even so, there’s something primally joyful in thinking about one’s favorite fictional characters as real breathing people and seeing something you’ve imagined unfold before your very eyes. The pleasure can be more visceral and the impact, more absorbing.
Here are some Filipino books that would make for great film or T.V. adaptations.
“Noli Me Tángere” (1887) and “El Filibusterismo” (1891) by Jose Rizal
Mandating every Filipino high school student to read Rizal’s novels may have been the books’ own undoing; the two works, on young ilustrado Crisostomo Ibarra returning from his studies in Europe and witnessing a society brutalized by friarocracy and miseducation, are exciting, sarcastic, and darkly humorous, with a cast of memorable, well-drawn characters who collectively offer a glimpse of late 19th-century Philippines.
For many high school kids, however, the Noli and the Fili, because they are required reading, are reduced to names and factoids and plot points to be memorized, their lessons on elite rule and state-sanctioned abuse fossilized when they in fact remain horrifyingly relevant.
It’s due for an update (there are movie adaptations by National Artist for Film Gerry de Leon in 1961 and 1962, as well as a thirteen-part T.V. series by Eddie Romero, another National Artist, for the CCP in 1993). Good acting can capture Rizal’s ear for satire and irony — a classic vehicle for social critique — and his brand of realism — the attention to telling details, penchant for set pieces, well-paced plot — should translate well onscreen.
“America is in the Heart” (1946) by Carlos Bulosan
The Trump era makes Bulosan’s magnum opus eerily prescient. This “personal history” of immigrant Allos, first in impoverished Pangasinan then in Depression-era America, is filled with absolutely violent episodes of poverty and racism, riots and strikes, a lot of booze and gambling. Its blurring of fiction and nonfiction lends it an unflinching clarity, and it’s also, in Hollywood parlance, action-packed. Something is happening all the time.
But for all its dramatic episodes, its greatest wisdom perhaps lies in its salient exploration of the intersection between labor and race, the potency of organizing in battling systemic oppression, and the still-complex relationship between the Philippines and America. The development of Allos as an individual would make for a dramatic arc, either in a stand-alone film or over episodes in a miniseries.
“The Forest” (1963) by William Pomeroy
One of the best shows in recent memory is the absolutely riveting Cold War espionage thriller “The Americans.” I had waited for a Philippine tangent while watching it, but alas there was none. It did confirm to me how history becomes most alive when recounted not in grand political narratives but in private agonies, in this case that of a typical “American” husband and wife who are actually Soviet spies.
The anti-imperialist struggle is also at the heart of American-born soldier-turned-Huk William Pomeroy’s memoir “The Forest.” It is an account of his and his wife Celia’s journey to the Sierra Madre mountains in southern Luzon as part of the guerilla movement from 1950 to when they were captured in 1952. Like “The Americans,” it is fitting material for a thriller, by turns gripping and poignant, depicting a secret world that very few have access to and a movement that dominant narratives routinely demonize.
“Gapô” (1988) by Lualhati Bautista
The prolific Lualhati Bautista is perhaps best known for her novels that had been adapted into the big screen, including “Dekada ’70” and “Bata, Bata… Pa’ano Ka Ginawa?” But my favorite from hers is “Gapô,” which might be interesting to revisit in light of the administration’s supposed pivot away from Washington even as things like the Visiting Forces Agreement remain in effect.
Set during the heyday of the bases, “Gapô” offers a cross-section of the bustling titular city but at its heart is as a coming-of-age tale for the blonde and feisty Mike Taylor, the son of an American GI who abandons him and his mother. His story is at once personal and collective, a portrait of an individual crusading against an increasingly brutal society.
A weekly miniseries featuring Joel Torre aired on RPN 9 in the 1990s, but the material seems better suited to a movie in the social realist tradition of Brocka and Bernal and Romero and De Leon, among others.
“Cubao” series (1992 to 1995) by Tony Perez
I cannot think of another oeuvre more keenly, more tenderly attuned to the psychogeography of the city as Tony Perez’s. His “Cubao” is both darkly erotic and murderous, cloying but also a source of liberation. Here, high school boys roam the streets toward a rude sexual awakening, displaced entities upend the construction of the Aurora underpass, a woman grows obsessed over news that a serial rapist is at large in the vicinity, and grownups with a dark past make sense of childhood traumas in strange ways.
No one details urban space, populates it with deeply recognizable characters, and lends it a palpable atmosphere like Perez. That his prose is reliably hypnotic also helps. Because the area changes so quickly, recreating 1980s Cubao might prove to be a challenge (though pockets of such period persist), but the rewards of bringing such a unique vision to the screen should make any effort worth it.
“Feast and Famine” (2003) by Rosario Cruz Lucero
It is rare for a short story collection to be so evenly superior and cohesive, with no single work out of place or of comparatively subpar quality. But that’s precisely the achievement of this book, the author’s second. The five stories in the collection all revolve around some aspect of Negrense life and history, but its modes range from realism to metafiction and its scope meanders from the Spanish to the contemporary period.
In its pages are summary executions and assassinations, spurned lovers, sexual tension (between a friar and a babaylan!), small town hypocrisy and feudal violence. All are delicious material for standalone episodes in an anthology miniseries a la “Black Mirror.” What might prove challenging to render — and where “Black Mirror” can perhaps serve as a model — is the sense of tenuous reality in the stories, an imagining that defiantly draws from indigenous worldview and knowledge.
“Trese” (first independently published in 2005) by Budjette Tan and Kajo Balidisimo
I take the recent outcry over local shows “inspired” by Western mythologies to mean that there’s appetite for more offerings that adeptly tap into indigenous lore (I can’t wait for the “Janus Silang” series in the works, for one). If there’s any work that makes use of this heady wealth and appears most overdue for an onscreen adaptation, it’s probably the graphic novel series “Trese.”
Originally a radio show, it follows club owner slash police consultant slash babaylan Alexandra Trese as she solves “weird” crimes in a familiar but also strange Metro Manila. In this world, the line that divides hard reality and the so-called supernatural is porous, if it exists at all. The aswang, tikbalang, and manananggal brush elbows with gang leaders, corrupt cops, and politicians. Trese herself is in possession of ancient wisdom and powers, uses a magical kris called “sinag,” and fights alongside an enigmatic demigod set of twins and other figures from local myth.
Initially episodic and self-contained, its accumulative mythology makes it suitable to a format perhaps similar to the BBC series “Sherlock.” A noir treatment can also serve its trademark black-and-white rendering well.
“elsewhere held and lingered” (2008) by Conchitina Cruz
There is something uniquely fascinating about projects that directly or indirectly engage with poetry as a source material. “Il Postino,” for instance, which features a Pablo Neruda character, or the harrowing South Korean drama “Poetry,” or the James Franco-starrer “Howl.”
A contemporary Filipino poet with a body of work that I think may translate well onscreen is Conchitina Cruz. In particular I can imagine an exciting “Il Postino” treatment for her sensuous sophomore collection about desire and infidelity “elsewhere held and lingered.”
As in the Italian film, a loose adaptation can play around with the real-life poet as a character, or recurring images and motifs in the book, or its narrative line. Most crucially, however, it should find a way to incorporate the poems themselves, to me among the finest written in Philippine literature in recent memory.