Neil Gaiman Journeys East to Pen 'Monkey King' Movies in China

The "Sandman" and "Coraline" scribe signs with producer Zhang Jizhong.

BEIJING – Neil Gaiman, the award-winning writer of The Sandman comics and the novella Coraline, has signed on to pen English scripts for a big-budget series of 3D feature films based on Journey to the West, China’s classic novel about the adventures of the Monkey King.

Gaiman, who grew up in England reading the 16th century epic fantasy in translation and watching a Japanese version of it on the BBC, joins one of China’s most prominent television producers, Zhang Jizhong, for his long-planned big-screen trilogy, replacing an earlier screenwriter, the two men said on Thursday.

Gaiman, 50, said the best part of his recent 10-day visit to China from his home near Minneapolis had been arguing with Zhang, 59, about which plot lines from the complex 2,000-page story to keep for the film series Zhang last year boasted would cost about $300 million to make.

China’s moviegoing audience is used to seeing Chinese classics told and retold and boosted box office grosses 64% by buying $1.5 billion in tickets in 2010.

Now the pressure is on Gaiman to write an outline over the next month that will attract enough investment to enable Zhang to hire the right director, the right Western and Chinese cast and the right team of computer animators to give the project a flight round the world.

“We have to do what Peter Jackson did with Lord of The Rings,” said Gaiman. “We have to make it filmic, non-episodic. This story is in the DNA of 1.5 billion people.”

Gaiman and Zhang, who must communicate with one another through interpreters, say the series will find most of its funding in China but didn’t rule out an overseas co-producer.

While shopping the project around in Hollywood recently the two met with Avatar director James Cameron who Zhang said has agreed to help them figure out how best to convey the story of a Buddhist monk’s misadventures on a pilgrimage across China to India. Gaiman’s friend Guillermo Del Toro is being courted to direct.

In Beijing for his third meeting with Zhang after they toured China together for inspiration, Gaiman said that nothing about Journey to the West was inherently Chinese, just as nothing about Romeo and Juliet was inherently English.

Assessing the challenge of distilling one of the four great epics of Chinese literature for the big screen, Gaiman hesitated: “To the West, there’s nothing inherently not interesting about Journey to the West. It has the best bad guys. That’s absolutely universal.”

And Monkey has travelled. In 2007, a Monkey King opera by musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, the co-creators of the animated pop band Gorillaz, hit big in the U.K. before touring Europe and the U.S.

In 2008, The Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li in their first on-screen collaboration, grossed $128 million worldwide, including $52 million in the U.S., where it opened at No. 1 for Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company. Beijing-based Huayi Brothers, where Zhang is a contract TV producer, distributed the film in China. It stands as China’s No. 20 most-successful homegrown film of all time with a box office take of 185.5 million yuan ($28.2 million).

Gaiman said that Zhang came along just when he’d run out of steam writing a book about Journey to the West. “There he was, my third act,” he said, adding that he plans to turn his work with Zhang into an ending for the book begun for HarperCollins in 2007.

That year, at a writers’ conference in Chengdu, Gaiman got a taste of being lost in translation in the Middle Kingdom while promoting the Chinese edition of his book American Gods.

“The audience started shouting at the interpreter and he shouted back. Apparently, he was convinced I’d written a book called American Dogs,” Gaiman said with a laugh.

Gaiman said his script will begin with little dialogue and could end up relying on the Chinese CGI that so impressed him in Zhang’s TV version of Journey to the West.

“In China, you’ve got an awful lot of men who can put in an awful lot of hours. Your CGI money goes so much further,” Gaiman said.

Zhang said each of his TV episodes cost $200,000, an amount the BBC might spend on making just a few minutes of Dr. Who, said Gaiman about the TV series for which he recently wrote an episode.

The latest film version of Journey to the West comes as Beijing’s cultural establishment has vowed to ramp up investment in and overseas promotion of Chinese culture. Huayi, which raised $176 million in a listing on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in 2009 and last year helped Disney and Fox make Chinese-language films, has pledged to support Zhang’s new project however they can.

With every upside to filmmaking in China, there’s a downside, often in the form of restrictions on creative control. At a press conference called to announce the film last May, Film Bureau director Tong Gang sat next to Zhang, a strong sign that the state would be watching how he handled the cultural treasure.

Asked if he felt that China’s censors might try to tell him how to interpret the classic, Gaiman said simply: “Monkey is irrepressible. The moment that you try to censor Monkey, he’s not Monkey anymore.”