Everything You Need to Know About the Latest Haruki Murakami Film Adaptation

A play on the short story, "Barn Burning".

haruki murakami barn burning adaptation

If you are anything like me and you find yourself longing to hear more about Haruki Murakami while you wait for the release of his most recent work, Killing Commendatore, look no further than Burning, the most recent film adaptation inspired by one of his many short stories.

A bit of background:

“Barn Burning”, originally published in 1992 in the New Yorker and later in collection The Elephant Vanishes, is Murakami’s play on William Faulkner’s story of the same name. Complete with nameless characters, a sense of loss, and an air of mystery tied to the true nature of reality, “Barn Burning” recounts a simplistic yet charged tale of arson. Like all Murakami works, the little details matter in this story, allowing the reader to sympathize with the characters and look deeper into the actions, many of which appear simple, almost mundane at first glance – including the narrator’s female friend, who peels imaginary tangerines, acting as a mime would, in a long, drawn out process that tugs at the strings of reality.

There’s a hint of obsession in the work as well. After a series of events that draw the narrator’s unnamed female friend to Algeria, where she meets a wealthy man who claims to be in trade and business, the narrator finds himself in a mysterious situation when the man suddenly reveals that he burns down barns. Subtle hints indicate the idea that there is something more than mere barns being burnt – there’s an air of foreboding when the man describes the barns as carefully chosen so as to not attract attention when they suddenly disappear. Informing the narrator that the next victim of arson will be close by, he takes it upon himself to mark all of the barns in nearby Tokyo that could be raised to the ground without notice, only to be disappointed by the lack of barn burning.

When the narrator goes months on end without seeing his female friend, it becomes clear that barn burning was merely a metaphor – and a powerful one at that – one that oozes mystery and silence, along with a hint of sadness at the ease with which things, including people, are forgotten in the world.

haruki murakami barn burning adaptation

Without further ado, here is a guide to the adaptation, Burning:

  • The film runs at 2 hours, 28 minutes and is directed by Lee Chang-dong, an award winning Korean novelist turned film-maker best known for his films Poetry and Secret Sunshine.
  • Burning stars Yoo Ah-in as the main narrator, Jeon Jong-seo, as the narrator’s female friend, and Steven Yeun (known for his role in The Walking Dead in the US) as the foreign boyfriend.
  • According to an interview with Lee Chang-dong on MUBI, a video streaming platform similar to Netflix, the film goes much further than the short story and infuses Murakami with Korean culture and lifestyle – touching on class conflicts in Korea as well as the struggles of Korean adolescents.
  • “Barn Burning” was a source of inspiration due to Murakami’s minimalist style, offering Chang-dong numerous opportunities to expand upon the story while staying true to the themes of loneliness and the blurred lines of reality.
  • The film is being marketed as a thriller.

Not to mention the fact that there are a few important differences:

  • The characters are named – Jongsu (Yoon Ah-in) takes the place of Murakami’s narrator, who is a young, aspiring novelist in Burning, as opposed to a married, unnamed man in the original short story.
  • Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) is an old childhood friend of the narrator in Burning, but is still in the same age group and is a struggling model who has taken up miming.
  • Ben (Steven Yeun) remains the wealthy man that the female protagonist meets in “Barn Burning”, but there is a bit of tension between him and the narrator in Burning, as there seems to be a large class barrier separating them, along with a bit of jealousy over the affections of Haemi.
  • The story is set in Korea – specifically the town of Paju, rather than Tokyo.
  • Greenhouses take the place of barns, as they are more widely available in Korea and have more cinematic appeal.
  • It is catered toward a younger audience and touches on the mystery of life, according to Chang-dong:

“I wanted to expand the mystery to the world where young people live,” he said. “Looking closely into everyday lives, it could feel familiar but the tension is there. The idea was the thriller — the mystery in our daily lives.”

According to reviews of the film, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in April, winning the Fipresci Prize, only to debut in Korea in May, there are very subtle similarities to Murakami’s original short story, “Barn Burning”. The metaphor for burning remains much the same, but so do a few smaller details –  the woman’s almost ghostly presence and ability to blur the lines of reality by miming the peeling of tangerines, along with her trip to Africa, which brings her in contact with the barn burning arsonist.

Similarly, there are nods to Murakami in the little details – such as the presence of a cat, which will please fans of Murakami, as cats are present in almost all of his written works. There is also a mysterious undertone, a focus on detail, and the idea of broken relationship – all of which are common themes in Murakami’s literary canon.

For fans interested in the latest adaptation of Murakami’s work, you will be pleased to learn that Well Go USA has acquired the rights for the US distribution of the film, according to Variety. The film is set to premiere in New York in late October 2018, followed by a wider release across the United States in November.

In the meantime, you can view the trailer for the Burning, below.

Are you excited about the latest Haruki Murakami adaptation?

Share your thoughts on Burning in the comments below!

Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.