[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Crazy Rich Asians.”]
When screenwriter Adele Lim stepped in to help adapt Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel “Crazy Rich Asians” for the big screen, director Jon M. Chu was eager to get the fresh perspective of a talented scribe familiar with that world. Lim grew up in Malaysia with her own strict family steeped in Chinese culture, so the world brought to life by Kwan hit literally close to home. Oh, and her own family was obsessed with the series, too.
“It was a book my whole family had been trying to get me to read, but I was too busy,” Lim said. “I blasted through the whole thing, called Jon back immediately, and was like, ‘I’m in 100 percent.’ I didn’t ask about timing, I didn’t ask how much the money. … I’d been writing for TV for 16 years and it never occurred to me that I would get a chance to write for my people for American television, much less in a major Hollywood movie.”
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The film already had a script in place, care of Peter Chiarelli (the writer of other Hollywood hits like “The Proposal” and “Now You See Me 2”), but Lim was able to add her own distinct flavor to a film that has been hailed as a groundbreaking game-changer for an industry that doesn’t often have the space for splashy stories focused on the Asian population.
The film follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) family for the very first time, a scary enough premise made all the worse by the discovery that the Young family isn’t just well-off, they’re not just rich, they’re crazy rich, and they don’t have any space for an interloping American like Rachel.
“Everything in the book, the dialect, the food, the family relations, all of it, it’s such a crazy heightened world, but all those small things, all those details, the family dynamic are spot on,” she said. “It was just a new look into a side of Asian culture I don’t think America has seen before. … It’s not about us being ‘the other,’ it was a story on our own terms.”
Ahead, Lim breaks down five big changes from the book to the big screen, plus the one sequence they just wouldn’t dare change.
The One Major Scene They Didn’t Change
Fans of Kwan’s series will likely be pleased to discover that Chu’s film opens exactly — save a tiny jump forward in time — the way Kwan’s first “Crazy Rich Asians” book kicks off. Set in 1995 London (the book opens in 1986 London), the first scene of the film introduces the Young family two decades before the rest of the film’s action plays out.
The clan, including Michelle Yeoh as matriarch Eleanor and younger versions of cousins Nick, Astrid, and Eddie, arrive at a swanky London hotel in the middle of nighttime downpour. They’re soaked through, and happy to finally have reached their destination, but a trio of sneering hotel employees simply can’t fathom that these foreigners have the means to stay in their chi-chi hotel.
“There was some discussion, deep into the process, where we had some notes of ‘maybe this isn’t the most dynamic way to start’ or ‘don’t we want to start with our two main romantic leads?,’ but Jon and I both felt that it was very, very important to give context to world,” Lim said.
Eleanor handles the situation with the minimum of time and the maximum of effort: she journeys out into the rain, finds a payphone, and calls her husband, who buys the hotel. “When you have a thing that says ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ it’s hard to have sympathy for people who just have money, you want to see contextually what that means to them,” Lim said. “It means having relevance and having importance in a world that might otherwise be very dismissive of them.”
1. Peik Lin and Ollie Get a Lot More Screentime
When Rachel and Nick venture to Singapore together, Rachel is pleased to have the chance to spend some time with her former college roommate, the incredibly fun Goh Peik Lin, played by breakout star Awkwafina (in what is bascially her third breakout role of the year). The Goh family as a whole is one of the most best elements of Kwan’s series, and Chu’s film only ups their presence.
“Awkwafina has this crazy whole persona [for the character],” she said. “She’s amazing, a total professional, totally gets it. A completely different flavor on the character from the book. In the book that whole Goh family is much more Singaporean with a Singaporean accent, but she and Ken Jeong put their own spin on it. You get this situation where it’s them, but it’s authentically also the characters and the spirit of those characters.”
While the movie cuts down a few subplots, Peik Lin actually gets more screen time, including a stop at the film’s first big event: Nick’s grandmother’s party, where Peik Lin bonds with another character who also gets more to do, Nick’s cousin Oliver (AKA Ollie, played by Nico Santos). The pair are both outrageous, friendly additions who offer Rachel the rare respite from the rest of the often cunning community around her. As Lim explains, of course they’d be friends.
“She’s this amazing character, and she’s one of the few people on Rachel’s side. You want her at that party,” Lim said. “There was also Nick’s cousin Oliver and there was some concern, ‘Oh, is there some overlap there?,’ but we felt like Rachel doesn’t have very many people on her side, and so it would be good to build her allies.”
2. Astrid’s Subplot Gets Stripped Down
But while Peik Lin and Ollie get more attention, other fan favorites had to be cut down, including Nick’s glamorous cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), who is dealing with her own romantic troubles. “She’s the favorite character of a lot of people reading that book,” Lim said. “Even though she’s this amazing modern goddess, she’s still incredibly relatable. … The challenge was to find a rich part of her story that we want to come in on. What exactly was the story we wanted to tell with her?”
Astrid’s subplot — involving something of a love triangle that blossoms into a love rectangle — is reduced, but Lim and Chiarelli did build in a scene that functions as a new introduction to the character, both for readers that already love her and movie-goers who might wonder what there’s to like about an insanely wealthy, incredibly beautiful woman who appears to have it all.
“We were always conscious that we’re telling stories that involve very, very rich people and it’s always important to remind the audience that these are people and they’re people we want to root for,” she said. “If you do come into this world that beautiful, that talented, that smart, what other struggles your relationship might have? … A woman like that, when you look at them from the outside, and they seemingly have everything, you don’t know what’s going on inside.”
3. The Young Family Bonds Over Dumplings
Midway through the film, Lim and Chiarelli unspool an entirely new scene: a daytime visit to Nick’s grandmother’s massive mansion in which all the cousins and aunts gather to make dumplings for yet another party. “Jon Chu grew up in a restaurant family and the dumpling-making scene, that seems to be a similar trait Asian families have, whether they’re in America, they’re in Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Singapore, but there is this thing of coming together and making food,” Lim said.
The scene provides a glimpse into the Young family’s own culture, complete with various family members showing off their (often quite different) dumpling-making skills and their (also often quite different) bonds with each other. “We wanted an organic way to bring the whole family together and for a lot of those tensions to play out visually in a way where we didn’t have to spell it out,” she said. “As they’re making dumplings, you show how all these cousins, in different parts of the world, they still they have this little foundation of being taught it by their family, and it’s something Rachel doesn’t know, and she’s not part of.”
4. The Wedding Is Even More Dramatic
“The difficulty with Nick and Rachel within the book, they’re wonderful characters, but they’re already into each other and Nick is always very steadfast, and so how do you create that conflict?,” she said. “What we ultimately came to was that the main conflict was going to be between Rachel and Eleanor, and how do we show this.”
The ostensible reason for Nick and Rachel’s visit to Singapore — the wedding of Nick’s best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) and Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno) — does not disappoint, as the entire film zooms forward to its over-the-top emotion and setting, making it a fitting place for Eleanor and Rachel’s other pivotal face off to play out. “Everything was building up this wedding, and weddings are the most dramatic moments, whether it’s in the movie or real life, emotions are heightened,” Lim said.
In the book, Eleanor secretly employs a private investigator to sniff out Rachel’s family roots, ultimately discovering that her father is not who Rachel thinks he is, a massive family secret that hurts Rachel tremendously. Kwan’s book spends an inordinate amount of time tracking this subplot — Eleanor even heads off to China at one point! — but Lim and Chiarelli’s script condenses it down into one bombshell, which Eleanor unleashes during the wedding reception.
“At the wedding, it was the height of Rachel and Nick just feeling so together, then Eleanor comes in and ruins everything,” Lim said. “I think for Eleanor in the movie, the idea is that she wouldn’t have done it if Rachel didn’t show up at the wedding, but Rachel did. She showed up because she said, I am a contender, and I am fighting for your son, and that’s when Eleanor shows her trump card.”
5. Rachel Faces Off With Eleanor
But that wedding-set blowout — which ends with Rachel running away to the Goh family, refusing to see Nick, and hiding out for days and days before they ultimately reconcile — isn’t the only big change made to the film’s ending. Lim and Chu added an entirely new element to the story: Rachel invites Eleanor to a mahjong parlor for (what might be) one last face-off. Rachel, who has spent the entire film not living up to Eleanor’s expectations, unleashes the fierce competitor within.
“I come from a mahjong family, and I grew up with that clacking sound,” she said. “It’s such a bonding experience, just in how you play it, just in how you shuffle, and how you stack the tiles, you can tell if somebody has just picked it up, if you’re in the culture or not in the culture. It was great that Rachel, who’s been labeled an outsider, she sets the terms, and the way she plays just without even saying it shows that she knows more than she’s letting on.”
It changes everything, putting Rachel in a place of power and forcing Eleanor to question her own ideas about this seeming outsider. “By the end, Eleanor realizes this girl she may have grown up in America, she may not know the lingo, she may not be one of us, but she is one of us, she gets it,” Lim said. “She gets the most fundamental, important thing about us.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” is in theaters now.