My seventh post in the Out of My Comfort Zone series! If you hadn’t heard about this before, it’s a series of posts in which I talk about my experiences with books/stories/formats I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.
This time, I did something a little different, and tried experiencing the same story in three different formats at the same time.
A Little History
For several month now, my twitter timeline has been full of people talking about a something called Mo Dao Zu Shi (or, as it usually is in tweets, mdzs). I didn’t pay that much attention to it, because most of what I saw was completely out of context and I had no idea of what it even was. I just assumed it was something movie/show/animation-related, and didn’t investigate further. (If you want to know about my history and relationships with things on screens: here. The TL;DR is that watching things on a screen and my anxiety don’t go along well.)
So, I went through months of being spoiled for basically everything, but in a way that was so out-of-context that it didn’t even matter or affect my following experience with mdzs. All I really knew was that it was a) gay in some way, at least in subtext and b) historical, maybe?
Then, I don’t remember how we got there, but I ended up talking about it with Silvia on twitter, and she recently got into it – so I finally understood that the thing that was everywhere on my timeline was a Chinese m/m adult fantasy novel involving necromancy that was adapted both as a donghua and as a live action show.
This combination of hype + recommendation from people I trust + vague but interesting premise meant that, at that point, I really wanted to try it. Since I had been wanting to try again and watch something on a screen for a while as well (in small doses, I can do that, if I can skim certain kinds of scenes), I did.
If you want more detailed information about what this story is and where to start, Silvia wrote a post about that!
Someone should have told me that this had the very specific trope “the most hated person of the realm comes back from the dead, chaos ensues” sooner!
I realize that I’ve never talked about this because it’s an overly specific combination of things and because I had only seen it in another book before, but… it might be my favorite trope. (Even though these stories have nothing in common, Mo Dao Zu Shi opens with exactly the same trope as Raven Stratagem.) I love reading about hated undead. It might be the many years spent in Catholic school and the whole framing of resurrection as holy when actually it’s a terrifying concept, I don’t know.
Also: complicated family dynamics! Music as magic! Necromancy and blood magic! There were a lot of tropes I loved in here.
Anyway, the story overall was great, and this was such a good time. Far from flawless, and it’s definitely the kind of thing I would only recommend with disclaimers, but was it addicting.
Now I’m going to talk about what I liked about each format. Keep in mind that I have very little experience with two of them.
Mo Dao Zu Shi [Donghua]
I started from here. Season one has been completed, season two is ongoing, and there should be a season three but I’m not sure when.
- There is a lot to take in at first. Not only because it’s fantasy and we know how worldbuilding can be, but because it starts at a point in which the main characters already have a long, fraught history with each other, so you don’t really understand their reactions at first (after, there will be many flashbacks). However, I have to say that, as I was told, the donghua beginning is the easiest to follow – it doesn’t infodump you but it gives you most of the information you need.
- Even before you get to appreciate the characters for who they are, this is funny just for how dramatic it is, and I loved that about it. The first scene involving the protagonist is one of the most dramatic things I have ever seen and I was there for it. (Might be typical of the format? I wouldn’t know.)
- So many scenes happen in the dark. Scenes set in tombs, in caves, dark buildings, woods at night – there’s a lot. Every time I got to one of those scenes, I couldn’t understand anything about what was happening, because of the terrible lighting/lack of contrast.
- I kind of find it aesthetically unpleasant for a variety of choices.
- It’s not finished yet.
- The fight scenes are boring and proportionally longer than they are in the live action (at least they’re really dramatic, which makes them funny).
- Of course, as usual, I need to skim some scenes, which means that I do lose some things.
- The m/m relationship can only be heavily hinted at because censorship.
Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation [Novel]
This one was a really interesting experience. You might already know that I have little to no patience for long books, especially ones longer than 600 pages. If I had known that this one was longer than 1000, maybe I wouldn’t even have started it. And it didn’t feel like something longer than 1000 pages, which made me think about what exactly I don’t like about long books – it’s not the length, not really. It’s the repetitive structure in a novel that just takes longer to get there.
A published American novel, unless it’s somehow experimenting with format, has a beginning in which the characters and world are introduced (or: new elements are introduced if it’s a sequel), a middle in which there might be a journey and there’s usually rising tension, and then a climax and an ending. It might be 100 or 500 pages, but it’s always that. If the story is really long, it gets broken up in two to three books, so you have to do this exact same thing three times. And from knowing this structure, you can more or less predict what’s going to happen next.
And it’s not that in this novel these elements are absent. There is a beginning, there is a main climax, there is an ending; however, it’s also a mess of incredibly long flashbacks sometimes following characters different from the main couple, and while it’s long it’s one story and not one broken and watered down to make three books, and all of this paradoxically makes it less boring.
- Being a novel, you get more details and many thing that can’t be translated as well on a screen;
- Comparing structure and tropes with the novels I usually read was really interesting, and there are some parallels as well as things that I’ve never seen a fantasy novel try, when they clearly should have. (Fake redemption arcs in a Shatter Me/A Court of Mist and Fury style are boring and always feel somewhat forced. What this book did is so much better when it comes to reversal of expectations, why don’t YA novels do [this spoilery thing] more often?)
- Unlike the other two formats, this is explicitly gay and doesn’t only hint at things. This way, you get that it took the main character years to understand that he is gay while being clearly in love with another man.
- If you’re interested in another of the two formats, this tells you the significance of certain symbols, so that the gay subtext of the adaptations becomes way closer to text in your head.
- This is messy at heart.
- While the author is really good at writing pining and romantically oblivious characters, the same definitely isn’t true for actual romantic scenes. The amount of dubcon in the form of non-consensual kisses and drunk kisses and drunk sex was really uncomfortable. The love interest’s jealousy also made my skin crawl. Let’s say that while I liked the romance in theory, the execution was bad.
- A person who values their own eyes should skip the sex scenes. I’ve never seen a fandom agree so strongly about the fact that these are terrible.
- It’s true for all of the formats, but something that is even more glaring in the novel is that every single female character is either evil, dead or irrelevant, with usually a big emphasis on irrelevant. While the other formats at least attempt to develop the female characters who end up dying, especially the live action, the novel does not.
The Untamed [Live Action]
- Listen. The aesthetic. I love everything about the way they chose to portray the setting and the costumes and everything looks so pretty on the screen
- I thought the casting choices were really good! I mean, there is to say that even if the acting was mediocre, I wouldn’t know, but I thought the characters were portrayed really well on the screen
- The romantic tension. This is such a good example of dancing around censorship. The longing, the loving gazes, the romantic songs… perfect. (This led to the weird phenomenon in which I like the romance in the live action, in which it can’t be explicit, far more than I do in the novel, because all the weird dubcon isn’t there. What a recipe for pain.)
- Female characters have a more active and important role! It’s still very flawed but at least they do something.
- It’s completely impossible to take the fight scenes seriously. (Maybe that was the purpose, I’m not sure, but they’re kind of ridiculous).
- It got rid of some of the moral ambiguity, which I have mixed feelings about.
- Censorship, of course
- Since this looks more realistic than the other two formats, I needed to skim a lot.
- Even though this ended up being my favorite format (I know, I didn’t see that coming either), I don’t recommend starting from it because I think I would have found the beginning really confusing if I had.
So, How Was Following A Story in Three Formats?
A problem I have with anything on a screen is that I have to skim. By skimming, I usually lose interest, because I lose details. Being able to switch from one format to another when it came to a point in which I started to lose interest in one was helpful, so that I ended up finishing all of them [well, the first one isn’t finished, but I saw all that was out]
It was really confusing, yes. These stories are similar enough to all feel the same story and different enough to cause confusion. I don’t separate them clearly in my head, but there’s also some good that comes from that – watching something that only heavily hints at the m/m relationship while reading the novel in which they’re explicitly gay (and what I said about the novel explaining the symbolism) ends up making you feel as if you are in fact watching something explicitly gay, because you mix them up in your head, everything feels like the same story. It never feels like baiting.
There are not many stories with which I could do this kind of thing – the stories that I’m interested in reading rarely get adapted, which is sad – but I would do it again if I had the chance.
Have you ever tried following a story in multiple formats at the same time?