Friday, April 20, 2018

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

I am never a movie person. But among the short list of movies I have ever watched (most of them are book-turns-to-movies or movies starred by Matt Damon--yes I'm his fan!), there are even shorter list of movies which I often rewatch. One of them are Anna and the King, starring Jodi Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. I loved its cultural background of 19th century Siam. I also loved the silent and respectable romance of an English woman and the King of Siam, as well as the perfect chemistry of Jodi and Yun-Fat. I learned later that it was based on the diary of a real Anna Leonowens--an English Governess hired by King Mongkut of Siam to teach his children (later on, his harem too). When searching for this diary, I stumbled upon this historical novel by Margaret Landon. She re-wrote Leonowens' diary into a more flowing story (cutting a lot of tedious geographical and antropological entries of the original diary).

If you have watch the movie, imagine the much savage, violent, selfish, and distrustful King, in oppose to Yun-Fat's charismatic and charming version; then increase by ten folds the wretched condition of the slave of a rich lady, of whom Anna has helped to buy the freedom. Imagine also how the revengeful King would react when his favorite concubine, Tuptim, was running away with her lover; that instead of regretting his impotence in intervening the court verdict and heartbrokenly but secretly crying for Tuptim's unfair death penalty like Yun-Fat's version, the real King was ten times more cruel and revengeful in his terrible rage. And lastly, the real King, while quite often granting Anna's request, he was also harsh, unfair, and deceitful towards Anna--and certainly very far away from having any sparks of romance! There... if you combine those aspects, you'll get the rough idea of the book.

When starting it, I have prepared myself to not expecting any romanticism of the movie. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised to learn the terrors Anna and her household must have endured during her stay at Siam. And my admiration grew for her. If this was truly Anna Leonowens' account of her real life in Siam, then she must have probably been one of the most brave women ever lived in 19th century. How terrible and dangerous her life and work was, and all for a vague hope that the crown prince Chulalongkorn might bring justice and brighter future to Siam when he succeeded his father!

The only time I did not hate King Mongkut, was near the end, in his thank you letter to Anna, where he said: "...All that [Chulalongkorn] ever learned of good in his life, you taught him." I think that was one thing teachers would always like to hear.

Finally, while the movie ends with emotional separation (the dance always makes me cry!), the historical novel ends with a slightly hopeful future, though not as emotional as when Yun-Fat embracing Jodie in their last dance: "It was through the principles laid down in her teaching that he had formed the plans by which he had transformed his kingdom."

4/5 - for this tremendous story of an English woman.

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