Missing in Translation: “Memoirs of a Geisha”

My name is Sabrina and I am a senior at Hofstra University. I work with ateam here at Hofstra to create our literary journal, Windmill. Being an English student, I have read a lot of books and novels, and as most people, I sometimes go and see movies that are based on books. I wanted to actually sit down and compare the book to movie translations and see how a couple of different books with different genres and themes held up against each other. For these posts, I read and watched Memoirs of a Geisha, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Brokeback Mountain.

After reading Memoirs of a Geisha,I knew going into the movie that it would have to be cut a little. The book is filled with so much detail and explanations about the culture within the text about the terms used, the cultural aspects of being a geisha, and even how that compares to how American’s view the culture, they could not possibly fit it into a movie, even though the movie is two and a half hours. The level of detail and thought that the author put in to hundreds of pages could not possible be recreated, as is the case with most movies.

To start off, there were plot lines that changed. Hatsumomo is one of the main antagonists of this book, as she is constantly making the main character, Sayuri’s, life harder, and how she ends up leaving the story is completely different. In the book she ends up being kicked out by Mother when she gets drunk and causes trouble, but in the movie, she sets a fire in the okiya, the building geisha typically live in, and leaves on her own, as we see Sayuri watching her walk away from the window. It may seem an insignificant detail, but reading the books, you end up resenting Hatsumomo so much, that it feels like justice when she is finally kicked out, and that justice is taken away in the movie. When conflict-ridden characters change from one version to the other, the writers and producers have to be careful because it is easy to change the relationship of crucial divisive characters, and that’s what happened here.

The ending also changes in the movie when World War II happens and Sayuri has no plans to become a geisha again, where in the books, she was eagerly waiting for Mother to write to her to come back. This changes the entire dynamic of the circumstances she meets with Mameha, her big sister. Mameha in the movie doesn’t seem to want to become a geisha again either, and just like Nobu convinces Sayuri, Sayuri convinces Mameha. This didn’t necessarily change the fact that they became geisha again, but it seemed wrong. In the beginning of the book and movie, it is said that they don’t become geisha because they want to, but rather they have no choice. In the books when they go back, it seems like an interesting turn in their lives because they are choosing to go back to this life when they could have possibly left and tried to make a different life. But in the movie when they are once again told what they should do, it comes across as once again they have no choices. This takes away some of the more empowering aspects of the book like them being able to control their own lives on some level as they become independent.

There were many details changed and left out, and I could go on for many more examples, like how the entire beginning of the book was basically left out, that showed Sayuri, who started out as Chiyo, was a very innocent girl from a small fishing village. In the book, this showed how innocent she was and how much of a shock it was when she is basically sold to the okiya, but in the movie some of her perspective is lost because it opens with her being taken and not a lot of explanation besides what is being implied. The one thing I appreciated about the movie was it never changed Pumpkin’s storyline, who was basically in competition with Sayuri from the time they were kids. From the small details of Pumpkin eating a treat off the sidewalk she finds, they kept Pumpkin more or less the same, picking up on how influential she was to Sayuri’s story.

While they kept important aspects, like Pumpkin’s storyline, they just left too much out for this to be a satisfying movie. I would definitely watch it as a television series that kept in all of the detail.

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