To set the stage for today’s discussion of an adaptation of an adaptation, allow me to discuss China’s Four Great Classical Novels:
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th century) — An epic war chronicle about the division and reunification of China circa 180-280; think the Iliad.
- Water Margin (also 14the century): About a group of righteous rebels fighting against corrupt Imperial authority; think Robin Hood.
- Dream of the Red Chamber (18th century): about the rise and fall of a rich family; maybe a bit like a Qing Dynasty Great Gatsby…
You’ll note, of course, that I’ve only mentioned three Great Classical Novels. That’s beause the fourth is the most immediately relevant, as it ultimately forms the basis of the show I’m going to talk about today.
The fourth novel is Journey to the West, easily one of the most popular and influential Chinese literary works of all time — especially in Asia, but well-known Western, English-language adaptations have been around since at least the 70s (more on that later).
(Very) Loosely based on the real-life travels of the historical Buddhist monk Xuanzang, Journey to the West tells the story of a fictionalised version of the real Xuanzang — generally called Tang Sanzang or Tripitaka depending on the translation — travelling to India to bring back sacred Buddhist texts.
He is assigned Sun Wukong the Monkey King — mostly called just “Monkey” in English — as his protector. For his disrespectful actions in Heaven, Wukong had been imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, until the Bodhisattva (“goddess” is an adequate translation, but probably the most comprehensible to English-speakers) of Mercy Guanyin tasks Wukong with accompanying Sanzang as essentially a condition of his parole.
Along the way, they are joined by the Pig Monster Zhu Bajie (usually called Pigsy) and the River and/or Sand (of possible River of Sand) Monster of unclear nature Sha Wujing (usually called Sandy).
And so, we end up with a Monkey, a Holy Man, a Pig, and an… Ogre of some description slowly making their way west and getting into all sorts of wacky adventures.
It’s not exactly surprising that one of the most popular literary works of all time has received numerous adaptations. Among those was the late 70s-early 80s Japanese live action show Saiyūki (incidentally, that’s just Japanese for “Journey to the West”), which is most notable for receiving an English-language dub titled Monkey that became hugely probably in big chunks of the Commonwealth — namely the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
Now, to my knowledge, Monkey was never aired in North America — I’d never heard of it before learning about its influence on New Legends of Monkey.
Also, the theme song is super catchy. And actually a surprisingly in-depth, text-accurate synopsis of the backstory.
I haven’t found anything more than a few clips of the show, but it’s clear that the BBC wasn’t taking the whole endeavour very seriously and took the “cheesy Kung-Fu movie dub” approach.
And I mean, yeah, it works.
Journey to the West itself is, if not primarily a comedy, at least a work with a lot of comedic scenes and the original Japanese version of the show that inspired Monkey is also apparently pretty light and playful. The BBC just took that and ran with it.
Decades later, a team of nostalgic Australian-New Zealand… ic producers would turn to Monkey as the inspiration for The New Legends of Monkey. It’s not exactly shocking that’s ultimately an Australia/New Zealand co-production.
The name is perhaps a bit misleading, New Legends isn’t a sequel or a revival of the original 70s Monkey, though it clearly and unabashedly wears its inspiration from the original Monkey on its sleeve. New Legends also doesn’t take itself too seriously and probably could be considered primarily a comedy, though it at least foregoes the “deliberately cheesy dub” aspect. Twenty years into the 21st century, that’s probably a good call.
Like I said, it’s an adaptation of an adaptation (and you could probably add another “adaptation of an adaptation” in there).
Actually, it’s kinda like Dynasty Warriors that way…
Worth noting that New Legends of Monkey is about as faithful and adaptation of Journey to the West as the original Dragon Ball is (“Son Goku” is literally just the Japanese form of “Sun Wukong“).
Again, Dragon Ball isn’t a faithful adaptation of Journey to the West, but it’s actually a pretty obvious
Quick sidebar: Did you know/remember that Yamcha was one of the main characters in the original Dragon Ball, whereas in Z is best-known for being treated like a complete chump.
Think about it is way: it’s like if, in the Star Wars sequels, Han Solo was killed off five minutes in by a random Stormtrooper and then Princess Leia married, like, Boba Fett.
Though, for what it’s worth, various recent Dragon Ball works have tried to let Yamcha get some vindication — up to and including literally allowing Yamcha to get his revenge by allowing for Yamcha‘s, um, Yamcha-ing of Nappa in FighterZ.
Playing fast and loose with the source material not necessarily a bad thing. Journey to the West is a long story without much of an overarching plot, um… arc.
And we’ve seen that sort of thing with, for example, pretty every adaptation of The Three Musketeers. The 80s anime version of Three Musketeers is probably the same degree of accuracy to the original material as New Legends of Monkey.
Taking the commedia dell’arte approach of telling new stories with established character archetypes allows for a much more focused story than attempting to replicate the entire story of the original Journey to the West. Especially within the confines of 20 20-some minute episodes.
Given both the influence of Monkey and the ubiquity of the Arthur Waley translation (also, as it happens, called Monkey) that names them as such — and, pragmatically, the difficulty that English-speakers have with Chinese names, it’s not shocking that New Legends uses the names Tripitaka (for Sanzang), Monkey (for Wukong), Pigsy (for Zhu Baijie), and Sandy (for Sha Wujing).
And in New Legends of Monkey, they look like this:
As we’ve seen New Legends of Monkey plays pretty fast and loose with the source material.
Most immediately obvious: Tripitaka and Sandy are women — though having a female Tripitaka (which I’ve seen in video games and, of course, with Bulma in Dragon Ball), or at least having Tripitaka played by a woman (as was the case in Monkey), is not an entirely uncommon occurrence in adaptations.
Also, Monkey doesn’t really look like a monkey (they could have at least given him a tail) and Pigsy is a not a pig monster.
The characters themselves don’t really have that much in common with the original characters, but the characters as presented on screen are still enjoyable in themselves.
Monkey has been changed the least. He doesn’t have all of the powers he has in Journey to the West (but if he did, the should would be a lot less exciting; he’s basically unstoppable in the source material), but he’s still a self-centred, hot-headed jerk with a magic staff and flying cloud.
Tripitaka is sort of an accidental Chosen One, and actually a pretty interesting take on the whole “Closest Thing We Got” archetype.
Basically, it’s established in the show that somebody named Tripitaka will save the world, but our Tripitaka ends up with both the name Tripitaka (she’s an orphan and her real name is never revealed) and the obligations that come with it when the original chose of Tripitaka is unceremoniously killed off about thirty seconds into the first episode.
She is, however, a lot more grounded and human than the unimpeachable paragon of the Buddhist ethic of her literary counterpart. Also, she’s clearly the weakest of the four, by dint of being a mortal human, but she’s also shown to have enough combat skill to not be completely hapless, as well as having the intellect to think her way out of her problems.
Although Pigsy starts off as a reluctant bad guy who turns Face a few episodes in, he’s probably much nicer than the original character, as his negative traits are downplayed and/or played for comedy and his sympathetic traits are strengthened.
Sandy is probably the least like her literary counterpart — even notwithstanding the gender flip. Though, to be fair, the original version is probably the least developed of the four main characters in Journey to the West. She still has water powers, but she’s a good-looking if unkempt blonde woman rather than a big ogre with a necklace of skulls, though her necklace is made of what I think are bird bones.
She’s probably the friendliest and most empathetic of the four, but clearly scatterbrained and odd, implicitly as the result of living in isolation for 500 years.
Also, the plot is much more of a straightforward “Save the World” quest than the original story. Journey to the West is more of a personal quest. Again, Tripitaka is going to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures. There’s no real threat to the world or anything like that and most of the bad guys, such as they are, are immediate threats to the four pilgrims, who usually just want to eat Tripitaka rather than having than grand ambitions to take over the world or anything like that.
Meanwhile, in New Legends, the four are trying to the Scrolls of Wisdom, bring them to the Western Mountains for reasons that I don’t think are ever quite established, and save the world from the demons who overthrew the gods during the 500 years Monkey was trapped in a mountain (the mountain-trapping is, incidentally, accurate to the text; the rest of that paragraph, not so much).
All in all, it’s a pretty clever reference to the quest in the original story, with the sacred texts and travelling West and all, but at most, it feels like an allusion to the original story rather than a meaningful adaptation. Which, again, is not a criticism. It stands perfectly well on its own merits and is probably a much better choice for a plot arc for a children’s action Fantasy show.
As of this writing March 2023, New Legends has not formally been cancelled by Netflix (Wikipedia still lists it as airing “- present”), but I haven’t heard anything one way or the other since its second season concluded airing in 2020.
Granted, COVID is probably extenuating circumstances (especially in Australia and New Zealand which locked down hard), so a delay isn’t exactly surprising.
This recommendation will be updated when I hear anything more about the show.
Understandable though it may be, the lack of a third season is pretty frustrating. Both seasons ended pretty, um, open-ended. Although both seasons ended with satisfactory conclusions of the story arcs within the season, overall, our heroes don’t really seem any closer to decisively saving the world and each season did end by establishing the main major challenge looming over our characters — not necessarily a cliffhanger, but certainly at least “Hey, here’s next season’s Bad Guy.”
Honestly, New Legends of Monkey reminds a lot of the 90s Hercules and Xena shows, though with an Chinese mythology angle, rather than a Classical mythology one. And it’s probably as faithful to that mythology as Hercules and Xena were.
I’d say it’s more Chinese mythology-inspired than a representation of Chinese mythology. The architecture and clothing are all clearly Chinese-influenced, but the cast is predominantly Australian and New Zealand…ian and quite ethnically diverse: Monkey’s actor is Thai-Australian, Tripitaka and Pigsy’s actors are both Tonga-New Zealand…ic (I’m sorry, I honestly don’t know what the adjective I’m looking for here is), and Sandy’s actress is French-Australian.
There’s not a lot of detail to the worldbuilding, but what we see on screen is perfectly serviceable as a Fantasy setting that manages to stand out from the typical Vaguely Late Medieval European setting.
Fittingly for a New Zealand co-production, New Legends of Monkey reminds of a lot of Power Rangers — fittingly because Power Rangers has been filmed in New Zealand for 12 of its 22 seasons, thanks to those sweet, sweet tax benefits.
Fundamentally, New Legends of Monkey is at basically the same level of tone and theme, as well and violence and objectionable content as any given season of Power Rangers. It’s rated PG on Netflix and is unlikely to offend or upset the most easily-offended among us.
The most risque jokes are probably going to go over the kids’ heads, but most adults are going to think they’re pretty funny. For example, Monkey is at one point noted by the histories to be a “piece of s—[Scene Transition].”
Much like Power Rangers, New Legends of Monkey isn’t trying and failing to be a high-brow masterpiece of either technique or storytelling. In fact, if anything, it’s trying to be the opposite: thanks to the influence of Monkey, it’s deliberately emulating the cheesy Kung-Fu movie style.
And it’s doing it well.
The fight scenes themselves are least adequate, the special effects aren’t great but that’s true of most TV Fantasy, the witty repartee between the characters is great and, much as is the case in Power Rangers, endearingly goofy and dumb, and the acting overall is also quite endearing, the bad guys are all bombastic and wearing ridiculous outfits, the story arc’s kind of a mess, but serves the function of getting the characters from plot point to plot point — in a generally westerly direction.
It’s clear that The New Legends of Monkey owes its inspiration to cheesy martial arts epics it’s utterly unashamed of that fact. It
Copyright 2023 J.B. Norman. Revised and expanding based on a post originally published 2022.
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