Vincent Lam's miraculous book goes under the knife for television
Charles Foran, The Walrus
April 7, 2008
n a soundstage in Mississauga, Ontario, a man knocks on the door of the apartment occupied by the woman he loves. Both are young doctors. As students a few years before, they carried on a secret romance that fell victim to her family’s disapproval. He is Fitz, a.k.a. Dr. Fitzjohn, and she is Ming, a.k.a. Dr. Ming Lee. He is also the handsome actor Shawn Ashmore, best known for a recurring part in the X-Men movies, where he plays a creature able to control the temperature and create blocks of ice and cold air. She is also the attractive actress Mayko Nguyen, a Vancouver native of Vietnamese origin with a growing resumé of film and TV credits. They are characters in an eight-part miniseries entitled Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which is based on a collection of stories of the same name, although in the book he was Fitzgerald, not Fitzjohn, and she was Chinese, not Vietnamese with Chinese adoptive parents.
In the scene being shot in Mississauga, Fitz and Ming are about to make a baby together. She wants a child but can’t manage to have one with her husband, identified as Chen. Chen, who also hails from the original book, is likewise a handsome doctor. He is the actor Byron Mann, a Hong Kong native with a lengthy list of movie credits, many of the martial arts/action variety. New to Chen’s television character is his longing to be an author. To be exact, he longs to be a Chinese Canadian ER doctor who also writes fiction. His voice-over, running throughout the episodes, reveals this secret yearning.
Unusual for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, the sex between Fitz and Ming won’t be dramatized onscreen. Given that he is only being asked to spend a few minutes in her bathroom with magazine porn and a plastic cup — Ming requires Fitz’s raw materials to inseminate herself — the decision is probably for the best. Instead, the couple is making awkward conversation in a fully stocked apartment, complete with paintings on walls and books on shelves, if not running water or a roof. The set has been constructed at the back of the studios rented by Shaftesbury Films, the Toronto production company creating the series, which will air in January on the Movie Network and Movie Central. A dozen crew members encase the actors in microphone booms and lights, while director Gail Harvey, her view partially blocked by a fake outer wall, sits before twin monitors showing the action. Ashmore and Nguyen need to do the scene just three times before Harvey is satisfied. On the third take, she asks Ming to twist her wedding ring, to demonstrate her unease at the prospect of procreating with Fitz’s sperm, or of not having real sex with him — or both.
Next to Harvey stands Jason Sherman. He is the award-winning forty-seven-year-old playwright who, after confessing to having earned just $791 in royalties one year, publicly renounced the theatre in favour of doing scripts for television and film. Sherman has written all eight episodes of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which is unusual for a series that will employ five different directors. As the sole writer (Melanie Orr served as his script supervisor) as well as an executive co-producer, he has had firm control over how the collection travelled from page to screen. The smaller changes from the book include Fitzgerald becoming Fitzjohn and the decision, at the request of the actress, to make Ming Lee ethnically Vietnamese. Another character, the Indian doctor Sri, has been reduced to a minor player. But these tweaks pale compared to the plot alteration under way in the apartment scene between the former lovers. It occurs during the final episode, and marks the dramatic culmination of both a doctorly love triangle and Ming Lee’s struggles with infertility. The triangle was only hinted at in the book, and was more a remnant of partner-switching student days. But Ming having a child with Fitz is something else. It is a fabrication born of a fiction.
Published four years ago, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures marked the literary debut of the young Toronto writer Vincent Lam. Shaftesbury CEO Christina Jennings, well aware of the enduring popularity of the doctor drama genre on television — in particular those variations involving attractive ER physicians struggling equally with their life-and-death trade and their persistent need to tear off each other’s scrubs — optioned the book at around the time it became the surprise winner of the 2006 Giller Prize and then a long-term resident on Canadian bestseller lists. She also retained Lam as a creative and medical consultant for the proposed series. When Sherman asked if he had future plans for his characters, Lam admitted he had been thinking of bringing them back in another project, and that a love triangle might come to the foreground, one rendered more dramatic by Ming’s inability to have a child with Chen. Sherman requested permission to incorporate those extra plots. Lam agreed.
The screenwriter, in conjunction with Shaftesbury producers, then made two additional requests of the author. Vincent Lam, who is Chinese Canadian, is also an emergency physician. Though the stories in Bloodletting draw on his experiences as a medical student, medevac physician, and ER doctor at a Toronto hospital, they don’t acknowledge his desire from an early age to become a writer as well. Shaftesbury thought that Chen — whose complex family background in China, Vietnam, and Australia is recounted in one story in the collection, a tale similar to Lam’s own family saga, as it happened — might display similar ambitions. Sherman agreed, and, once again, so did Lam. Pushing the meta-TV envelope still further, Sherman also liked the idea of the author making a cameo as a patient seeking emergency room help. Guess which attractive young physician would be assigned to tend to his ailment?
Michael Ondaatje once joked publicly about Anthony Minghella’s superb film adaptation of his novel The English Patient. Minghella had added so many good scenes and lines of dialogue that Ondaatje said he had lately taken to believing they were also to be found, by some miracle of reverse migration, in his book. His gratitude wasn’t misplaced. One glancing moment in the novel where Ondaatje’s bomb disposal expert, Kip, hoists up a British academic (a male) to view some frescoes in an Italian church was transformed by the director into a romantic onscreen encounter between Kip, who is Indian, and the Canadian nurse, Hana. That scene was cinema gold spun out of literary copper.
Film and television adaptations aren’t always so inspired, or so successful. And Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, while stocked with TV-friendly doctors, wasn’t an obvious choice. Lam’s twelve stories may be linked by the recurring characters and arranged in chronological order, but they read more like the building blocks for a single narrative — in effect, for the novel the novice author wasn’t yet ready to attempt. His prose, too, displays the same precision of his driven, largely humourless physicians. The collection provided isolated dramatic events, ranging from a single night in an ER with a vagrant brought in by the police, to the unfolding 2003 SARS crisis and plenty of compelling insider stuff about emergency medicine. Absent, however, was a larger unifying narrative arc, along with the requisite bounty of those quirky, aren’t-people-funny encounters that fill episodes of ER and Grey’s Anatomy — if not real emergency wards in real hospitals.
Enter Jason Sherman, with his instincts for drama and his eye for absurd human behaviour. In an office above the set, he explains how after reading just ten pages he knew he could adapt the book. Initially toying with the idea of an anthology of single-story episodes, he eventually resolved to construct that missing narrative arc. He liked the characters but found them either too grim, in the case of Ming Lee, or too saintly, in the instance of Sri. With Sri, he shrank the part; with Lee, he had her keep company with a funnier, looser version of the Fitz character. “A Jew in WASP clothing,” Sherman jokes of the new, slightly renamed Anglo doctor with the strong appetites for Ming Lee and alcohol. He also had to incorporate the actors’ appearances and mannerisms, and found himself writing scenes with Shawn Ashmore and Mayko Nguyen, as well as Fitz and Ming, in mind. “At a certain point,” he says, “I had to throw away the book to do justice to the book.”
To do that, he created new characters and plots, fantasy sequences, and flashbacks. He lifted very little dialogue from the original. With adaptations, Sherman believes, it is easy to keep the letter of the source material alive while accidentally killing its spirit. Trusting his own sense of the book and drawing on his conversations with Lam, he aimed to get the spirit right. Two scenes in episode 2, “The Lost Years,” demonstrate the Lam-Sherman dichotomy. Both involve Fitz, now at Mercy Hospital in downtown Toronto, during his first day on the job. One scene has him grappling with a traditional Muslim woman who has a ruptured ectopic pregnancy but won’t let him examine her. Another sequence shows his nervous employment of a bone saw to remove a ring attached to a college student’s penis. The ectopic pregnancy, and the patient who won’t permit a male doctor to touch her, came from Vincent Lam, a story from his own experiences in the ER. The penis ring, and its removal, was suggested by a writer and scripted by Jason Sherman.
A walk through the soundstage in the company of the screenwriter makes clear why his adaptation was always going to be either a hostile takeover of, or an enriching collaboration with, Lam’s collection. We stroll the hospital corridors, passing a fully outfitted ER ward, doctors’ offices, an emergency waiting room, and an “outdoor” drop-off area with its own ambulance. Actors linger, waiting to shoot scenes, and if the day’s schedule doesn’t require them to wear scrubs they can still pass for intense, harried young physicians. For a playwright, even a disaffected one, here are ready-made players and decked-out stages. Small wonder he is inclined to refine characters and craft dramas out of not only the story given to him but the “real” performers and settings as well. Sherman’s creative relationship isn’t only with the completed book; he is in daily exchange with the tools, and the needs, of this other medium. In the case of Sherman-meets-Lam, the result is a witty, polished miniseries that does justice to both creative parties, as well as marking a stylish, quietly Torontonian addition to the crowded doctors-on-television market. “I’m waiting for the compliment: ‘It’s not like the book,’ ” Sherman says of the collaboration.
Authors often end up feeling their fictions have been taken over by the Jason Shermans of the TV and film worlds. After completing a shift at the hospital where he continues to work, Vincent Lam, now thirty-six, admits that he found the process of adaptation, including his own stroll through the soundstage ER ward so like the one he works in, “a surreal adventure in the best possible way.” Still, he has his own views on the differences between books and movies, and on the exigencies of a visual medium. He was more than willing to supply new plots and divulge backstories for characters that Sherman could then employ. He was also willing to make a cameo, and to provide a once-real ailment needing emergency attention.
In episode 5, a patient called Mr. Needle appears in the ER complaining of a sewing needle embedded in his foot. Lam, who has recently stepped on a needle buried in the carpet of his new house, has fifty-three seconds to explain that he, an ordinary-looking Chinese Canadian in his thirties, earns a living as a writer of stories and novels. He tells all this to Chen, an extraordinary-looking Chinese Canadian doctor of around the same age who has a secret longing to write novels and stories. In one take, Mr. Needle pushed his own meta-joke, telling Chen that he also “wrote the book that this show is based on.” Actor Byron Mann apparently kept a straight face on learning about this curious dissolve of what Lam calls the “reality/surreality” of his own identity as a doctor, a doctor-writer, and now a doctor-writer-playing-a-writer in an adaptation of a book based on — what else? — his own early career.
That take won’t be appearing in the final cut of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. But Lam has literary mischief of his own making under way. His first novel, Cholon, Near Forgotten, will be published this coming fall. It tells the story of Percival Chen, a Hong Konger who flees to Saigon from the Japanese invasion in 1945 and later washes ashore in Australia. Percival Chen is the grandfather of Dr. Chen, and an earlier version of a tale he will narrate in the novel has already been outlined, in miniature, in the story “A Long Migration” from Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. The novel will be, in that regard, the book that the TV Dr. Chen might be secretly writing in his off-hours. Instead, it is Dr. Vincent Lam who is now editing the fiction he has written about his fictional character’s fictional families — a clan, and a background, quite like his own. Physician, meet thyself.
This article originally appeared here
© The Walrus 2009