Rising Sun, adapted from the excellent Michael Crichton 1989 corporate thriller, is a guilty pleasure. The book is so strongly characterized in the case of John Connor that I couldn’t wait to see it on film. I wanted to hear the character say the lines, to perform the actions. This is in contradiction to my rule (I’d say general rule, but I can’t think of another exception than this film) that I do not like very faithful film adaptations of books I have read. And the portrayal on screen is satisfying enough to qualify the film as a guilty pleasure because the producers of the film cowardly, arbitrarily, and nonsensically changed the ending.
Captain John Connor, a semi-retired liaison officer, expert in Japanese culture and affairs, to guide the relatively inexperienced junior officer Lieutenant Peter Smith on a politically hot murder investigation that occurred on the conference table inside the new Los Angeles offices of the Nakamoto Corporation. Connor is a man who has played and adapted to both sides so well – American and Japanese – that he is not entirely trusted by either side anymore. His motives are unknown, his methods sometimes seemingly counterproductive or contradictory, but his knowledge and guidance always interesting. He is the prototypical Crichton mentor lead – representing the wise person who knows more about the situation than any of the characters. To not follow this archetype’s advice in Crichton’s books usually leads to disastrous consequences.
Connor is engaging, witty, dry, and a man of action, and Connery seemed to inhabit the character effortlessly in the film. Although I am a fan of Connery, I’ll have to give notice to an important tidbit about the writing process. Connery probably had an easy time because he had the incredible advantage of having the role virtually written for him – Crichton mentioned in an interview that he had written the character of Connor with Connery as his model. Indeed, reading the novel after I had heard about the casting, it was hard to not picture Connery’s Scottish accent and mannerisms in every movement. On screen, the character was exactly as I had envisioned – quelle surprise!
(Aside, this trick works exceedingly well if able to be pulled off with the timing of publishing and film adaptation. The downside is if the person you envision for the role when writing has grown too old by the time the film gets adapted (Anne Rice famously wrote Lestat patterned on Rutger Hauer), then you’re comparing to what-might-have-been.)
Contrarily, the character of Lieutenant Peter Smith was decidedly not written for Wesley Snipes. In the book, Smith is a white junior liaison officer who deals with many challenges in trying to figure out the whodunit while navigating the dangerous political and racial waters of the story. One of the subplots in the book (and film) is how the Japanese Nakamoto corporation strongly intimates that Smith’s (and other white officers) accusations about them are strongly racially driven. In other words, they “play the race card” for tactical purposes. Although the central theme of this subplot is consistent in the film version, the accusation of Snipes’ Webster “Webb” (apparently, a black man with the name “Peter” would be just unbelievable) Smith adds the additional element of irony to the situation, having experienced racism towards him first-hand his entire life. That irony makes the accusation just a bit more implausible, as the Snipes’ Smith expresses. It doesn’t ruin the subplot, per se, but it does mute and move the effect further from a very concerned Smith this-could-happen-to-you to are-you-kidding-me concept. There’s still concern there, but a white man suspected of racism feels a lot more plausible – especially from the standpoint of requiring less evidence to be believable – that from a black man. Can both a white man and black man (and any other man) be racist? Sure. But plot constructs are not designed to be interchangeable with characters. As such, although the script is adapted to the new race of the main character, it’s wisely given lip service in the film but by and large played down.
Another case of this adaptation is played for laughs in the film. During a scene where Connor and Smith are being stalked by a crew of Japanese enforcers, Smith (Webb, not Peter) decides to drive into the ‘hood’ to let his old buddies from the street (i.e., black hoodlums) deal with the Japanese. When the gangsters get a hold of the Japanese car-load of bad assess, the foreigners are soon chagrined when intimidated by ‘real’ gangsters. Obviously, the entire scene was written to take advantage of Snipes’ casting, and it memorably funny, but sticks out as something that was precisely written in as a throw-away gag in an otherwise thriller.
Some of the adaptations from the 1992 book (written much earlier) are welcome. For instance, in the book, DAT video tapes were used as the platform for cutting-edge technology used to hide, obfuscated, and replace the killer’s identity. By the time the 1993 film was produced, it was clear that DVD video would be the more accurately cutting-edge. Neither method is critical to the plot-driving point, but the adaptation cleans up a technologically dated smudge.
What also may be a guilty pleasure, or perhaps just undeniable screen charisma was Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s magnetic portrayal of Eddie Sakamura. Tagawa played Sakamura as playful, mischievous, sexual, and dangerous, really bringing to life an otherwise regular supporting character.
Unfortunately, the guilt part of the guilty pleasure comes from knowing how the filmmakers decided to change the end. The scene itself played out like a modern version of some Scooby-Doo resolution. Connor and Smith are closing in on the culprit (or so we think, those of us who read the book) in the climactic conference room scene, and they list the evidence they have that corporate henchman Ishigura (Digression: His name was changed in the film from Ishiguro for reasons that are either oblivious to the viewer or arbitrary. Aha! Ishigura sounds innocent, but Ishiguro is way too much of a giveaway to American audiences. We might as well name him Sinister McEvil!) is behind the coverup. Ishigura (o?) cops to everything as in the book, except for the actual murder. For that, he goes, “no… it was him!!”, pointing to [white-bread American] Senator’s aide Bob Richman. (Second digression; if you’ve read Crichton’s books, and you are named Richman, you are not a nice guy.)
And the chase begins with Richman meeting an untimely end. Of course, none of the detectives even thought for a second to question the guilt of Richman, nor did Richman even think for a second to say “prove it”. The pointy finger was the entire DNA evidence needed in this case. The curious thing is that when I have watched the film with persons who haven’t read the book, they never notice the switcheroo until I point out that in the book, he wasn’t the murderer. (He was guilty of conspiring to be a douche bag, certainly.) The disconcerting thing is not that the white guy suddenly did it, but that there was absolutely no change in the evidence and process leading to the pointy finger. Like, ‘how do you know he did it?’ no longer mattered. The no-longer meta-cinematical version of “And now, for something completely different…”
Why all these little changes? I cannot read into the mind of your average Hollywood producer. I won’t pander to the stereotype of them being a brainless lot, and instead say they are likely very cowardly lot. The book’s main theme was Japanese integration and investment in technology and real estate on our shorelines, and what the consequences may be to selling our technological souls down the line. It’s very likely that the filmmakers wanted to avoid any controversy with the criticism (Ironically, Crichton’s book was called racist by some Japanese critics, the exact reaction the Japanese corporation used in the book to criticism of its methods) and water-down the book’s subject matter. It felt like an executive pandering and a desire to avoid any and all controversy, and ultimately, the film suffered for it. But I still liked it a lot more than I should. I just accept that I will roll my eyes in the last five minutes.