When Amy Tan considered whether her successful novel "The Joy Luck Club" should ever be adapted as a movie, she had more than the usual author's qualms about retaining the essence of her creation.
"You know, for most writers the horror is that your book will somehow be besmirched and not done in the proper way," the writer said at a recent Washington press luncheon promoting the elegant, emotionally complex film that opens in Baltimore Friday.
"But I had to think of the additional thing: What if the movie is made, and not only is it not true to the emotions and intentions of the book, but is an embarrassing depiction of Asian Americans?"
Readers made "The Joy Luck Club" one of 1989's biggest sellers, finding in the author's first novel a universal connection to its interwoven stories of four Chinese-born women and their Chinese-American daughters.
Ms. Tan, 41, said she was initially reluctant to even think about a film version.
"It had more to do with what had been done in the past with Asian-Americans on the big screen. In other words, I've never seen a real [Asian] character, a real person conveyed on the screen. There certainly were wonderful movies -- "The Last Emperor," but that was the last emperor, not an ordinary person, [and] "Flower Drum Song," which was very entertaining, but it was a sort of musical comedy with people who were, quote, wetbacks."
She noted her friend Anne Rice, whose novel "Interview With the Vampire" is about to be filmed by Warner Bros., has expressed dismay over the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role of the homoerotic Lestat.
"I really sympathize with her, but she doesn't have vampires coming after her saying, 'How dare you insult our community in this way?'. . . I would have that happen to me," Ms. Tan said, laughing.
So what to do?
"I would have loved to have been totally irresponsible and taken the highest option money offered me," she conceded.
Instead, she initially took no money at all.
She and two collaborators -- director Wayne Wang ("Slamdance," "Eat a Bowl of Tea") and Ron Bass (who co-wrote "Rain Man") -- sat down to produce a screenplay "on spec," intending to offer it to studios with the proviso of retaining complete artistic control.
Breaking the rules
Co-screenwriter Mr. Bass, who shared an Oscar for "Rain Man" (with Barry Morrow), said the trio never really expected a major studio would mount the film.
"We broke every rule of conventional screen-writing," he said, for the film uses multiple narrators and flashbacks within flashbacks to tell 16 separate stories.
Surprisingly, however, "The Joy Luck Club" was eventually made their way. Both executive producer Oliver Stone and the Disney subsidiary Hollywood Pictures agreed to the artistic freedom, if the makers could keep the budget to a relatively modest $10.6 million.
The movie seems more expensive, lushly filmed in and around San Francisco's Asian community and on location in China. A large, predominantly Asian cast includes such Hollywood acting pioneers as Tsai Chin ("The Inn of the Sixth Happiness"), France Nuyen ("The World of Suzie Wong") and Kieu Chinh (most recognizable from a memorable guest part opposite Alan Alda on the television series "M*A*S*H").
"We created something new and yet we were faithful to the intentions, or rather, to the emotions of the original stories and characters," said Ms. Tan.
And despite her concern about the reaction of the entire Asian-American community, the writer admitted she ultimately had to reject the responsibility.
"We all were very much aware that people were expecting us to create something . . . that would be representational of all Asian culture, and we simply couldn't do that," she said.
"The reality is that there are so few minority voices out there that get heard in the arts by the mainstream, and so when they do finally get the limelight . . . the communities they come from want to make sure they address those cultural hot points," she said.
"Nobody tells John Updike, 'You can't depict Pennsylvanians that way,' " she added.
Born in Oakland, Calif., to Chinese immigrant parents, Ms. Tan moved to Europe as a teen, and completed high school in Montreux, Switzerland. She returned to the United States to attend San Jose State University, and eventually became a free-lance business writer.
Originally a short story
"The Joy Luck Club" grew from a short story she wrote in 1985 for a writing workshop. And the novel drew on people and stories from her own family.
In "The Joy Luck Club," the younger women struggle to reconcile their family culture to life in modern America. How has Ms. Tan's ethnic heritage shaped her?
"I can't extricate one aspect of my being from another culturally, and that question changes for me moment to moment," she said. "There are times that I feel completely unaware that culture is even part of my consciousness. And there are other times I might . . . feel very different -- and suddenly I'm aware that I'm different, and if people stare at me I wonder if they're staring at me because I'm Chinese or because they think this hat I wear on a bad hair day is kind of weird."
As a book, "The Joy Luck Club" obviously transcended its cultural identification and appealed to a broad mainstream. The producers hope the movie does the same.
"My mother thinks I made an entirely Jewish movie. She doesn't understand how I persuaded Amy to make a Jewish movie," Mr. Bass said, laughing.
And Ms. Tan described a studio screening of an early version of the film before a predominantly blue-collar, non-Asian, "non-book-loving" audience.
"They went to the movie, a free movie, because it was an Oliver Stone picture . . . but they stayed. It was so amazing to me that the whole audience just sat there," she said.
She stood anonymously outside the theater as viewers filed out.
"I remember this kid with the baseball cap on backward, he must have been about 16 and he was African American and he had a girlfriend with him . . . and he said, 'Man, that was a great movie.' My heart just soared. I thought if we can play to young boys . . . maybe it will play to a lot of people."