Friday, November 19, 2010

Anna and the King of Siam

If she had done nothing more than teach this one woman, she knew now that her five hard years had been amply repaid by what she had seen this night.

Many people around the world are familiar with the story of Anna Leonowens and Mongkut, the king of Siam. Images of hoop skirts, beautiful women, and Yul Brynner doing the polka instantly come to mind. But the true story of Anna and Mongkut is deeper than that, grittier, more volatile. In this semi-fictionalized novel, Margaret Landon streamlines the accounts written down by Anna herself into a story cultures colliding.

The Plot:

Anna Leonowens is a young English widow in Singapore with two children to support. After her reputation as an educator becomes known throughout Southeast Asia, she is invited to tutor the wives, concubines, and children of Mongkut, King of Siam, who wishes them to be taught a modern Western curriculum. With grand ideas and expectations, she accepts the position and is soon on her way.

It is not long after she arrives that she realizes that her idea of Siam is only a dream. Here, she is faced with a world that is completely foreign to her. A world where women have absolutely no power, where every whim of the king is law, and where justice is a hit and miss affair. It is to this world that Anna struggles to bring modern Western thought, and to influence the future king so that he may one day lead his nation into the modern world.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

The first question most people have when they read this story is "How much of this is real?" Margaret Landon herself described the story as "75% fact and 25% based on fact", so the majority of the book stays true to Leonowens' original memoirs (though many now believe those to be somewhat romanticized and fabricated).

The book itself focuses on three relationships primarily. The first is between and Anna and Mongkut. Though the film versions give the most emphasis to this, it is not the most significant part of the story. There are very few actual scenes directly between the king and Anna, and those that are shown generally end in an argument. Their relationship is volatile from beginning to end, and there is no real romance like the movies give hints to (except for a small bit on the king's side). The king himself is driven by his emotions and is subject to violent fits of temper. In the end, Anna does leave Siam and never really gains any real respect for the king.

The second relationship is between Anna and the women of the Harem. At first, Anna is not sure what to make of this city within a city. She must deal with the hierarchy, jealousy, and racism that pervade the life of the harem, and at the same time introduce brand new ideas to this secluded group of women. But though the challenges are great, it is probably here that Anna sees the most success from her five year tenure. There are many individual lives she touches from the lonely and misguided Tuptim to the the imprisoned and suffering L'Ore. It is here that her lessons of the rights of women and anti-slavery really take hold.

The final relationship is between Anna and Siam itself. Though Anna had lived in the east most of her life, it had always been in British colonies. Siam is her first step into a world without much Western influence. Much of the book is dedicated to the traditions, superstitions, religion, and festivals of the Siamese people, and watching Anna's English ways collide with this theirs provides the majority of the humorous moments of the book. But Anna herself does not take these differences very well. In fact, they are the greatest burden on her life in Siam, and there are as many tragic moments caused by misunderstandings as there are funny. The political side of Siam is given a lot of coverage to, and it is very poignant to watch as the king struggles to keep his nation out of the grip of European nations.

My biggest gripe with this book comes down to Anna herself. She is seeking to change Siam (and often in a good way), but she never allows Siam to change her. She never sees the king as anything beyond a despot, she never sees the women of the harem as anything beyond simple-minded creatures who can't grasp their demeaning situation, and she never sees Siam as anything but a brutal country with a culture that is far beneath those of Europe. Every time her way of life clashes with theirs, it is because they are the ones who have no culture. I would have loved to see Anna be more accepting and appreciative of the beautiful and exotic parts of Siam. But instead, she is like every other European in Asia at the time.

This is a very interesting read and one that I would highly recommend, especially to historical fiction lovers and those who love the film versions. The story of Anna and Siam is one that teaches many lessons, and lets us discover a world that no longer exists.

The Movie:

There have been many adaptations of this story and everyone has a favorite. The first is the 1946 version starring Irene Dunne as Anna and (wait for it...) Rex Harrison as Mongkut. Seriously. I haven't seen this one, but it was very popular when it first came out and is considered one of the top three adaptations of the book.

Then we have the wildly popular 1956 version starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. This one is the best adaptation in my opinion. Though it does soften the portrayal of the king, most of the original plot is left and the music is downright gorgeous. If you don't see any other version- see this one. Yul Brynner rocks!

If you have young kids, they may enjoy the 1999 animated version. Though the plot is twisted a bit, it includes many of the original songs from the R&H version as well as songs from the Broadway version.

Also in 1999 came "Anna and the King" starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. Now, I liked this version not only for the characterization, but also for the lovely on-location cinematography. It doesn't quite follow the original story, adding lots more drama and romance, but it still a fun movie. Recommended for all hopeless romantics (and those who don't like musicals).

1 comment:

BILL HUNT said...

The strength of character in both leads of the 1999 version impresses me, mostly because I shared a similar experience of 15 months in Pakistan.

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