Adaptation Comparison: Silence

In this post, I will be reviewing the book, and then reviewing the movie as I would any other, but also review it as an adaptation of the book. During the review, I will compare the contrast the two, and at the end, I will recommend neither, one, or both, and tell you in which order you should experience them. Enjoy!

The Book

Silence is a 1966 Japanese novel by Shūsaku Endō, translated into English by William Johnston in 1969. The story takes place in the 1600’s Japan, at a time when Christians were being hunted, persecuted, tortured and killed because of their religion, or at least because of their persistence in trying to spread it to Japan. Our protagonist is Father Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary sent to Japan with Father Garrpe in order to find and rescue Father Ferreira, who the Church has lost contact with, and who they assume has been either captured or killed. Nevertheless, Rodrigues and Garrpe pledge to the task and travel to Japan, where they could knowingly die for their beliefs. This is not a story that would typically spark my interest as I’m neither a religious person or a history buff, but reading this novel was actually a really good experience that was not only entertaining but also very insightful as well; I think that there’s a lot to take away from the novel aside from just having a good time reading it.

If there’s one element that this novel contains a lot of, it’s description; there is no shortage of sections with endless paragraphs of scene/setting details. As this is a novel taking place in 1600’s Japan, all of these paragraphs are helpful in grounding me in this foreign country in a foreign year, but the trade-off here is that it seems like not a lot happens during a few of these chapters. In that regard, Silence reminds me a lot of Jane Austen’s  works, in which story-time and discourse-time will be incomparable. By that I mean, there are chapters in which maybe only a few things happen, but those moments are stretched so that time hardly moves in the story, even though it takes 10 pages to get from moment to moment. That is the same case here, and some of the chapters felt like they could’ve been abbreviated or abridged to trim a lot of the “fat,” but again, this isn’t a novel I would typically read, so there were times in which I zoned out for a paragraph or two, and had to re-read it as to not miss anything (I never missed much).

All of that being said, the chapters in which things did happen were extremely cinematic and enthralling. I’d explain this novel as Saving Private Ryan as the tone and atmosphere are very much akin to that film, but in the mountains of Japan in the 1600’s. I’m not sure what could be considered a “spoiler,” so I’ll stay away from most story details that I haven’t already mentioned, but let’s just say that there are moments of heightened intensity that stand out far above the rest, and they all are because of how well the characters are written. Rodrigues was a great character as he is very innocent and loving, and even though I’m not a religious person, I still felt for him as his faith was being tested and his life was falling apart because of it. To quote the greatest film ever, “People love what other people are passionate about,” and Endō explains Rodrigues’ passion very well in the story, making the stakes of losing his faith just as high as the stakes of losing his life, maybe even higher.

Rodrigues is a great albeit flawed character has he has such delusions of grandeur, not just in his religion (from the Japanese’s perspectives), but also in the fact that he relates (or equates) himself to his lord, Jesus. Kichijiro is somebody who tests Father Rodrigues’ faith as well as patience and acts as the Judas-type, who betrayed Jesus and lead to Jesus’ death. Rodrigues often would tell himself how he is a lot like Jesus in his present state, with the weak and dishonest Kichijiro trying to betray him, but also in that he is being persecuted for being religious in a place that doesn’t tolerate it. A theme that recurs in the novel is the sound of cicadas, which represents the “silence” that Rodrigues hears when praying, and represents his doubt in his faith. One torture technique in the novel, the ceremony of fumie, was to take a group of Christians and ask them, one by one, to step on a plaque or carving depicting Mary and Jesus. Again, for somebody who is not a 17th century Christian, this wouldn’t affect me like it would them, usually, but the way this novel is written, these paragraphs were extremely meaningful. One reason why that was the case is because Rodrigues is such a well-written character to get behind, and his faith resonates very well within the pages of the story, and his mission of locating and rescuing Ferreira with Garrpe felt like a fantastical journey. Rodrigues and Garrpe were like Frodo and Sam, and Ferreira was like Mordor, and getting to him seemed like an absolutely impossible task throughout the book, and because of that, Ferreira’s name starts to seem more like a myth than anything else. Again, this discourse-time seems like the method in which Endō used to make the events seem farther apart than they actual were, making the search for Ferreira much longer than it would have been with only story-time being equal to discourse-time.

The first four chapters are in diary-entry style written informally from Rodrigues’ perspective, then the next chapters are your “normal” third-person following Rodrigues until the last chapter, which absolutely brilliantly explains how time goes by, as well as other things that I cannot mention without spoiling the story. Basically, the last chapter is also in first-person diary entry form but through somebody else’s point of view; he writes about mundane things like ships entering and leaving the harbor and then mentions a character who we know occasionally in those entries. Because all of the entries are dated, we see how much time goes by, and he only mentions the character that we do know a few times during those, showing how he has joined the mundanity of the culture, which was a brilliant transition through time as well as telling the reader a great deal of information in just a few words. Lastly, the way that this was written and simply the word choice and phrasing used were executed with genius; there were so many pages that I dog-eared in order to revisit them. So many passages seemed very insightful and well-worded and it was impossible not to stop for a moment to think about what Endō meant by what he wrote.

Overall, I’d have to say that I would never have read this book if there wasn’t a movie coming out, but I’m very glad I did. As it is not my typical subject matter, it did take awhile for me to get into the story and it ended up being a very awarding time investment. Giving us an incredible amount of rich description, Endō swallows the reader in 17th century Japan and provides so much scene and setting details that it was so easy to feel as if I was there with those characters. Speaking of the characters, Rodrigues is a very well-defined lead that made me quite sympathetic to his cause because of how innocent and passionate he was in his search for religious truth as well as his search for Ferreira. Garrpe didn’t have as big of a role in the story as I would have assumed from his prominence in the beginning, but his role was served well. Kichijiro tested Rodrigues in every chapter, and in turn, strengthened Rodrigues’ resolve as well as his character. There is a lot of tedious description that does a good job in setting the scene, but there are long sequences when it feels as though nothing happens, which makes reading this occasionally very underwhelming, but moving forward was never a problem as this is quite a brisk read.I’m going to give this book an 8/10 and a green recommendation. It’s a story that I’ve thought about all week as I’ve read it, and will definitely read again at some point in my life, probably sooner rather than later. Now, time to watch the movie!

The Film

Silence is directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks who both adapted it from the novel. Andrew Garfield stars as Rodrigues, Adam Driver as Garrpe, Liam Neeson as Ferreira, Tadanobu Asano as the Interpreter, Issei Ogata as Inoue, and Yôsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro. The story begins with Ferreira in Japan, narrating that the Japanese have been hunting down the Christians and torturing them. The rest of the film follows Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garrpe as he voluntarily travels to Japan in order to find Father Ferreira and spread their religion without getting caught. It’s the same story as the novel, and the film was one of the most faithful book adaptations that I’ve ever seen. There are very, very few things about the film that are different from the book, except for the ending, which does take away from some of the ambiguity of the “message.” (skip the red paragraphs if you want, they contain spoilers)

Yes, the “message,” which I place in quotations because there isn’t really a message, but rather a story about a man and his religion. There are two sides: the Christians and the Japanese, and they do not see eye-to-eye; the Japanese are very violent and torturous with their beliefs while the Christians are much more pleasant and peaceful. The Japanese are unhappy with the Christians because this was not their land to come to and spread their offerings, but the Christians remained too persistent, which made them enemies. There is no agenda that this film has, and it doesn’t pick a side. It’s an adaptation of a novel which is historical fiction about religion in the 1600’s, and I think that anything else one sees in the film or novel is a projection of their own expectations and beliefs. Treat this film as a Rorschach test, which means you’ll take the “message” however you want.

The novel, I thought, was much more ambiguous in its story, which was just about a man in search for meaning, which was personified by Ferreira; when he finds Ferreira, his faith loses it’s meaning and he has to try to salvage whatever he can from it. He steps on the fumie, apostatized, and denounced his god, which in his mind would make him a lesser Christian. Garrpe, on the other hand, instead of apostatizing, died along with the Japanese Christians in order to prove his faith. In Rodrigues’ eyes, is he a lesser man in his faith because of his choice to stay alive? And did he lose his faith or did he carry it with him until his death? These are the questions posed by the novel and left unanswered, but the film tries to answer it with the final frame of Rodrigues’ corpse holding a cross. I much more liked the ambiguity, as the entire rest of the film was ambiguous as well, but the ending seemed to lean one way by showing us a cross at the end. 

I’ve mentioned “ambiguous” a few times, but have yet to explain what I mean: in the book and the movie, we hear God talking to Rodrigues at a few points, but we aren’t sure if it’s just his imagination/projection or if it’s real, and when we see his face turn into Jesus’ in the reflection in the water, we don’t know if he’s seeing what he wants or is going crazy. In these moments, the meanings are ambiguous and indeterminate. Towards the end, after his faith has been tested, and after he apostatized, we don’t know if he still believes in his old faith (as he explains that he is not a Father anymore) or is he has completely adopted his new Japanese lifestyle. At the end of the film, he has a cross that he has kept, and it makes it seem as though he has remained a Christian, which is much less ambiguous than the novel was. 

Okay, so now let’s focus on the production. The cinematography was absolutely breathtaking and the look of the film very much made me feel like I was in a distant land in a past time, extremely foreign indeed. Garfield’s performance definitely did a lot to help that too; he played a Portuguese Jesuit priest very well, and I completely stopped thinking of him as Andrew Garfield, and more of Rodrigues. The score was curious, because there was no score at all which played up the title of “Silence,” and I thought it worked rather nicely. The most notable sounds in the background were the cicadas, which as I mentioned in the book review were used to emphasize the “silence” that Rodrigues hears when he prays to his Lord. The first time we see him holding a cross in the film, we hear the sound of cicadas grow and grow, and then stops when we cut away; it was a great metaphor that explains a lot of his troubles with his faith that the rest of the story explores.

The pacing was actually very well handled for a nearly three-hour film; I never got bored or tired, and that may have been because I read the novel, but I was really into the story and would have been happy for it to have gone on much longer with those characters. Placing myself in the shoes of somebody who has not read the book, I could see how people would have trouble understanding what was going on because of the dialogue spoken in thick accents; the Japanese characters were sometimes almost impossible to understand if one did not have context to tie their words to, which I did from reading the book. The names are not mentioned very often, so my friend just remembered them by the actors instead of the characters, which I’m sure was challenging with so many characters coming and going and all having foreign names. Either way, the casting was all great, even Inoue, who I pictured in the book as a much more sinister and powerful man than he was in the film, which was more a silly old geezer than anything. However, I suppose that this casting does a good job in showing that this Japanese notion was just as normal as the Christians,’ and this Inoue, or any Japanese person like him in history, didn’t have to be menacing in looks when he is menacing in how he orders the torturing of Christians.

Overall, I’d have to say this is one of the most faithful book-to-movie adaptations that I’ve ever seen, and it probably ranks up there next to The Lord of the Rings for that reason. The movie was a slightly better experience for me than the book was, simply because it was easier to follow for me, but that may just be because I have read the book; explaining some plot points to my friend after seeing it was necessitated as he did not understand some things that the movie tried to do, as they weren’t as obvious as they were in the book. I would definitely recommend reading the book before watching the movie, but definitely, experience them both. I’m going to give the movie an 8/10 and a green recommendation as well! The two are very much alike, but I think the book is a great introduction to the film, and they go great together for sure. Well, that’s all I got for Silence! I might come back and add some more elements as I think about this longer, but for now, I hope you enjoyed reading this! As always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon!


Published by Blake Carson Schwarz

Indiana University graduate in Media and Creative Writing. I love to write my own stories as well as experience the work of others. On this site, I post reviews, essays, and other fun posts that I hope you have as much fun reading and I have writing. Please share any comments you have, I'd be happy to hear what you think! *Never a critic, always a fan*

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