Is The Monkey King (2023) Based on a Book?

Directed by Anthony Stacchi, Netflix’s ‘The Monkey King’ is an animated action-comedy film centering upon the Monkey King’s adventures.  The movie features the voices of Jimmy O. Yang, Bowen Yang, Jo Koy, BD Wong, Jolie Haong-Rappaport, and Stephanie Hsu. The film follows Monkey King as he embarks on a quest to ascend to Heaven and join the Immortal Ones. However, he becomes misguided by his arrogance and selfishness. If you are wondering whether the titular trickster and his adventures are adapted from a book, here is everything you need to know about the inspiration behind ‘The Monkey King.’

Is The Monkey King Based on a Novel?

Yes, ‘The Monkey King’ is based on a book. The film is an adaptation of the globally renowned Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West.’ First published in the 16th century, during the rule of the Ming dynasty, the folktale is said to be written by Wu Cheng’en, a Chinese author and poet. The book has been one of East Asia’s most popular works of literature. Arthur Waley translated the book into English, which was released in Western countries under the title ‘Monkey’ in 1942. The book has been adapted into several pieces of media and inspired works such as Akira Toriyama’s ‘Dragon Ball‘ and Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel ‘American Born Chinese.’

Although the book primarily focuses on the journey of monk Tang Sanzang and his many companions, it also extensively features the character of Monkey King. The film lays the groundwork for the Monkey King’s backstory and details the events leading to the powerful warrior’s imprisonment in a stone cave by the Buddha. However, the film also makes certain subtle changes to the source material while adapting it for the screen.

The movie’s screenplay is written by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman, and Rita Hsiao. Bencich and Friedman are best known for penning the screenplay for the 2003 Dinsey animated movie ‘Brother Bear.’ Meanwhile, Hsiao co-wrote the 1998 animated film ‘Mulan.’ Anthony Stacchi (‘The Boxtrolls’) directed the screenplay. In an interview with A-Frame, Stacchi spoke about his approach to adapting the classic literary fiction novel into an animated feature film. “Years ago, I’d tried to develop a ‘Journey to the West’ adaptation at other studios. I read the book originally 20 years ago, and I just loved it. I’ve always loved the folktale. I think it’s hilarious and kind of magnificent,” Stacchi said.

One of the major differences between the book and the film adaptation is its depiction of the titular trickster – the Monkey King. The film portrays Monkey King as an antihero and dives into the character’s flaws. “It’s a 500-year-old folk tale, but the tone of it is incredibly modern. It has a very contemporary antihero, and the story is really, really funny,” Stacchi said about embracing the original story’s comedic undertones. Stacchi also revealed that he watched several Hong Kong comedy movies from the 80s and 90s to help him with his adaptation.

In the process, Stacchi explored the filmography of Stephen Chow, who acted as an executive producer on the project. Chow has directed his own take on the source material in the form of the 2013 live-action fantasy film ‘Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.’ Stacchi credits Chow with helping him explore the awkwardness, arrogance, and selfishness of Monkey’s character while keeping his spiritual journey intact. The film also introduces the character of Lin, not present in the source material, who acts as a companion to the Monkey King.

Ultimately, ‘The Monkey King’ is a mostly faithful adaptation of the initial chapters of ‘Journey to the West.’ However, it takes a more modern and comedic take on the titular character. Nonetheless, it imparts similar lessons about the pitfalls of hubris and the upsides of humility through an enchanting spiritual journey filled with mystical elements, much like the source material.

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