The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang—Adaptability Review

If you have read my reviews for Mulan (2020), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), or my blurb about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) in my “15 International Films on Netflix to Watch While In Quarantine” article from early 2020, you would know that I absolutely adore Chinese fantasy. By far my favorite genre of literature is fantasy, so, a book/book series I have been very much looking forward to reading is R. F. Kuang’s 2018 novel, The Poppy War. I picked up this book two weeks ago and absolutely devoured it. While it has been picked up to be adapted for television by Starlight Media, is this incredible book ripe for adaptation?

Kuang’s The Poppy War is a grimdark high-fantasy novel inspired by the politics of mid-20th century China, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and an atmosphere inspired by the Song dynasty. The novel’s protagonist, Fang Runin, or Rin, has found herself in Sinegard, the Empire’s most elite military school. Being a female, dark-skinned war orphan from the southern most province, has made her school life all the harder as she must confront the political complexities of becoming a great military leader. While struggling with the target on her back, Rin catches the eye of Master Jiang, who teaches her that the Pantheon of gods are more than stories and are very much alive. As the Empire’s entered a Third Poppy War, Rin debates whether to meet with the gods and wield the art of shamanism in order to win the war.

This novel takes you on a journey. The first part of the novel is very much a wuxia-inspired martial arts section involving school days, and outside the descriptions for the occasional practice/sparring injury, the book was fairly tame and I thought that maybe the grimdark tag was misused. Then war happens. Kuang’s descriptions of atrocities, brutality, and just overall action is not only some of the best imagery I’ve ever read in a fantasy book, it’s also the most visceral and gut-churning. When pieces of media, either literary or visual, are as gruesome The Poppy War gets, they normally get to the point of unnecessary, and often they just become tedious, murder porn for the author. However, every horrific scene described in this book had narrative purpose, and because of this, The Poppy War was not just an entertaining action fest, but also a well-developed, character driven commentary on the casualties of war.

Between the incredibly fleshed out characters and world and the fantastically painful action, the story of The Poppy War (at least for the first book in the trilogy) is, at first impression, prime for either a film or television adaptation. That said, in order to do true justice to the source material, a lot of horrific scenes have to be had. The only time I’ve seen the type of scenes and violence that this property would bring on the screen, has been in HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones. So, if HBO was the studio behind the upcoming adaptation of The Poppy War series, I would be 110% onboard, but this is being approached by Starlight Media (who have previously backed Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019), and Midway (2019)) and the station/streaming service it is to be released on is still unknown. While the incredible martial arts, well-written and memorable characters, and Chinese fantasy aspects would be enough to make for entertaining television, if Starlight Media is unable to include the casualties and atrocities of war, then there isn’t a point in making it.

First, if you are a fan of fantasy, Chinese history, or just the ramifications of war, The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang is a must read—if your tastes in literature are anywhere similar to mine, you will not put this book down and will be left salivating to start The Dragon Republic (the second book in the trilogy). While I absolutely loved this novel, I am apprehensive about the upcoming adaptation. If they announce that it is going to HBO or Amazon I am going to be overjoyed, but if they announce any cable channel (except for, possibly, AMC) I am going to be left feeling empty as I don’t see how the project would be anything other than doomed. Just based off the first book alone and the recent return to American interest in Chinese fantasy (Shang-Chi has completely revitalized the interest for that style of film here in the States), The Poppy War has the very real opportunity to be the next Game of Thrones, and hopefully, the future will prove me right.

Book Review: 5/5

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Adaptability if HBO or Amazon: 5/5

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Adaptability if otherwise: 1.5/5

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

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