C-Dramas: How “The Untamed” Improved Upon the Novel

Screenshot from “The Untamed” on Netflix, starring Wang Yibo (left) and Xiao Zhan (right). Copyright of Tencent Penguin Pictures and New Style Media.

Hey! Hallie here!

“The Untamed” has become one of the biggest bingeable shows on Netflix during quarantine. It’s also completely deserving of it’s popularity. The acting, writing, and amazing lead couple have made “The Untamed” my new favorite show of all time. It inspired me not only to re-watch all fifty episodes immediately after I finished watching them the first time, but also to consume whatever other versions of this story I could get my hands on. This, of course, led me to the original novel, “Mo Dao Zu Shi” by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. After reading this novel I came to a conclusion that is likely not very popular: The series is better. I’m not saying the novel is bad by any means, but I definitely have a few thoughts I want to single out that struck me while reading. So SPOILERS if you haven’t read the novel or watched “The Untamed”.

The Flashbacks: In Mo Dao Zu Shi the flashbacks are sprinkled around the book. Whenever a character requires knowledge from the past, the book takes a moment to fill you in so you aren’t lost when the past events start becoming important to the plot. The character that is most affected by this arrangement of the story is none other than our main villain, Jin Guangyao. Jin Guangyao is introduced early in the book, but not in the way we see him in the series. Instead, he’s introduced when Wei Wuxian, still posing as Mo Xuanyu, accompanies the Lan sect to Carp Tower. We meet him when he’s already Chief Cultivator. For those who are confused, yes, this is something that happens towards the end of “The Untamed”. It is only when Wei Wuxian performs empathy on the disembodied head of Nie Mingjue, connecting with his memories, that we get any sort of backstory for Jin Guangyao and his connections to any of the other characters. I personally feel his character suffered for it. Instead of seeing this seemingly kind man be mistreated, become close with Lan Xichen, and win over the trust of even Wei Wuxian, we get a huge info dump about his past. While I do believe there are certain past events that can be held from the audience until the last moment, the character development of your main villain doesn’t strike me as one of them. This is not the only example. Other characters and pieces of important information are dumped on the reader without the narrative taking time to allow the reader to get to know them (*cough* The Xingchen and Xue Yang plot *cough*). “The Untamed” has thirty three episodes dedicated to piecing together all of the flashbacks, presenting the entire story of Wei Wuxian before his untimely death. This allows the audience to create personal ties with the characters and become emotionally invested before we see any of the major reveals that come with Wei Wuxian returning to life. For this, I think “The Untamed” handled the arrangement of the story better.

Female Representation: Given that the novel is longer than the series (113 chapters) you would think that the female characters have more to them there than in “The Untamed”. Nope. My biggest gripe with the book is it’s refusal to explore it’s female characters. In the book Yanli is hardly ever present. She maybe gets three scenes. Her only big moments are defending Wei Wuxian from Jin Zixun’s arrogance during the Night Hunt on Phoenix Mountain, and pushing Wei Wuxian out of the way of a killing blow, taking it herself. We see both of these in “The Untamed”, but we also get her appearance at both Gusu and Lotus Pier during it’s attack, giving her so much more depth and character. Wen Qing is also given a much larger role than she serves in the book. This role was initially met with backlash coming from those concerned that she was to be the new love interest for Wei Wuxian. I understand the concern. I really do. Implying Wei Wuxian could be interested in anyone but Lan Wangji is blasphemy. But I appreciate what they did with her character in “The Untamed”. They introduce her in Gusu, way at the beginning of the series, and she is present whenever the Wen clan is plotting it’s evil schemes. She even helps Wei Wuxian when he’s attempting to care for Lan Wangji’s broken leg. In the novel she is only introduced when Jiang Cheng is recovering from the attack on Lotus Pier, which is quite far into the book. You get her involvement in giving Wei Wuxian’s golden core to his brother, as well as her importance in Burial Mounds, but her time in the book isn’t lengthy. The only female characters that really stay the same between the novel and series are Mianmian, Madame Yu, and Wang Lingjiao. They are also, unfortunately, some of the least explored characters in “The Untamed”.

Wei Wuxian’s Innocence: If you’ve watched “The Untamed” there probably isn’t any doubt in your mind. The death of Jin Zixuan is not Wei Wuxian’s fault. In fact, we get the reveal that Su She had learned to use demonic cultivation to mess with Wei Wuxian’s abilities during both the battle that killed Jin Zixuan and the massacre at Nightless City. In the book this doesn’t happen. Jin Zixuan is killed by Wen Ning when Wei Wuxian becomes angry and loses control. Simple as that. However, the book STILL argues that these events aren’t his fault. One of the major reveals at the end of both the novel and the series is that Su She cast the hundred holes curse on Jin Zixun (Not to be confused with Jin Zixuan), a nasty curse that eventually causes your internal organs to fall out of the holes in your body. This is the event that caused Jin Zixun to attempt to kill Wei Wuxian. It is also revealed that Jin Guangyao convinced Jin Zixuan to go after Jin Zixun in the hopes that his interference would result in Jin Zixuan’s death. These alone seem to clear Wei Wuxian from the crime of killing his nephew’s father, and Jin Ling even becomes angry at Su She and Jin Guangyao in place of being angry at Wei Wuxian. Though these things are troubling, Wei Wuxian is truly the one responsible for killing Jin Zixuan, especially after Jin Zixuan had already attempted to de-escalate the situation. This frustrated me specifically because the book handles the massacre at Nightless City so well without shifting the blame off of Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian is confronted by cultivators that lost their families to Wei Wuxian’s loss of control, and Wei Wuxian not only doesn’t deny his involvement, but points out that he has already suffered and lost everything in return. In the very least “The Untamed” commits to proving his innocence in both instances.

The Relationship Between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji: Unsurprisingly, I’m not a fan of Chinese censorship. Especially in instances where a LGBTQ+ relationship is denied to an audience. However, I have found that the writers of C-dramas based on BL novels have gotten admirably creative while walking around Chinese censorship laws. “The Untamed” is no exception. Partly because of the amazing acting from Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan and partly because of some amazing writing, it is obvious how these characters feel about each other without having to see them kiss. Their interactions are sweet and swoon-worthy in the way that they care for each other. The novel doesn’t need to worry so much about Chinese censorship. So yes, we have full romance scenes, including some sex scenes. I’m not criticizing the fact that these scenes exist. My criticism is that these scenes muddy their relationship. Firstly, their first kiss in non-consensual. Wei Wuxian is blindfolded and finds himself pressed up against a tree, making out with someone he can’t see. While we know that its Lan Wangji later, neither the reader, nor Wei Wuxian, knows it’s him at that point (Though it’s kind of obvious). Second, their first time is also non-consensual. While Lan Wangji is the aggressor in that situation, not allowing Wei Wuxian to leave even after he attempts to multiple times, Lan Wangji is also soooo drunk. I won’t talk about the nuances in each scene or the cultural differences because people more knowledgeable than me have made lengthy posts on that. I will only say that these are way too big of events for consent to be completely shirked off like that. And these two really need a safe-word.

So these are the main differences that make “The Untamed”, in my opinion, better than the original novel. I still enjoy the novel, obviously. How could I not? The novel has an incredible story and characters that “The Untamed” stays very true to. But along the way I think that “The Untamed” made some smart decisions that elevated it just a bit higher. Regardless of which form of the story you prefer, we can all agree that it won’t be leaving our minds any time soon.

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!

Hallie

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