‘The Sympathizer’ Producers Detail Biggest Challenge of Adapting Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novel

Stars Hoa Xuande and Duy Nguyễn hope the HBO miniseries starts a conversation about the missing perspective on the Vietnam War

When Team Downey was approached about HBO’s adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” many of the puzzle pieces were already in place — including a pilot script, show bible and Park Chan-wook and A24 attached.

“We really got to see the vision of it,” producer Amanda Burrell told TheWrap. “We read the book, which is incredible, and were honestly staggered that they were able to adapt it so incredibly. It came in with director Park’s crazy idea of Robert [Downey Jr.] playing four characters and we just loved the ambition of it.”

“We like things that make us a little nervous. If there’s not a point in the process where we look at each other and say, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to pull this off?,’ we’re probably not doing the right project,” producer Susan Downey added. “We are always trying to find new territory and do something that challenges us in a new way.”

But Burrell acknowledged that nothing about the development process was easy, from bringing the book’s “unconventional structure” to life on screen to ensuring the show was authentically representing the Vietnamese culture and community.

“The casting was a worldwide search,” she said. “There’s a wealth of incredible actors who aren’t in Hollywood yet because they’re not often centered.”

Downey added that the cinematic challenge of the show allowed the creative team to attract some of the best in the business from a production standpoint.

“From our line producers to hair and makeup to costumes production design, we had such incredible people. Each of those departments had a deep bench of Vietnamese elements to it as well Vietnamese people, Vietnamese research, all of that stuff because we wanted to get it accurate,” she said.

Co-showrunner Don McKellar admitted feeling a lot of pressure going into the adaptation, given the reputation of the source material.

“It was already a very famous book and won the Pulitzer Prize. So that’s always a challenging place to start when you’re talking about an adaptation,” McKellar told TheWrap. “But it was easier than a lot of novels, because a lot of novels have interior monologues that drift back and forth in time. This does go back and forth in time but it’s pretty propulsive, there’s quite a bit of action. There’s big set pieces that seem cinematic because it’s very pop culture savvy, too.”

The biggest challenge was “rising to the level” of the novel and successfully maintaining its complexity, intelligence, wit and voice on screen.

“When I first talked to Viet, that was his biggest concern. He felt that the success of the book was because of the unique voice,” McKellar added. “The biggest way we dealt with that was getting Park Chan-wook on board because he has a pretty equivalent visual language, the same kind of intelligence and craftsmanship but also subversive wit.”

When it came to creating the show’s visual style, Chan-wook told TheWrap he was able to swiftly create a roadmap after reading the source material.

“When I was reading the original novel, there were many images that came to my mind,” he explained via translator. “When making ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,’ I adhered to the style of minimalism, going straight about keeping it dry and very strictly in terms of its visual composition. And ‘Oldboy’ I went the other way, it was about being kinetic, it was about being flamboyant. But nowadays, I don’t do such things. It’s more about finding the precise content and writing an emotion for each of the moments and each of the scenes.”

One key element brought into the adaptation from the book was using the Captain as the show’s narrator.

“From very early on, we came to use whatever’s happening within the Captain’s head as a device to tell the story,” Chan-wook told TheWrap. “We borrowed the format of the Captain writing the confession, and also the format of this conversation happening between the Captain and the commandant at the re-education camp.”

The cast of “The Sympathizer” were all drawn to the project for the opportunity to tell the story of the Vietnam War from a perspective that’s been missing from the West’s understanding of the conflict.

“We think about all the movies that you know, from ‘Apocalypse Now’ to ‘Platoon’, I even remember watching TV shows like ‘Tour of Duty’ about depictions of the Vietnam War and thinking that this was the narrative and this is how it was,” Hoa Xuande, who plays the Captain, told TheWrap. “To finally read a book that actually illustrates a lot of perspectives from the Vietnamese experience that I haven’t heard before is really what I carried with me in doing this project. It weighed heavy on me to really try and do justice to the stories that we haven’t heard before.”

“I grew up in Hanoi, Vietnam, decades after the war. So I didn’t know about this part of history,” Duy Nguyễn, who plays Man, said. “For me, the whole shoot, reading the book and the script, I’ve learned so much about a part of the war that I’ve never thought existed and now millions of people are going to see it.”

In addition to starting a conversation, they hope it’ll be an opportunity for healing.

“A lot of the cast members in the show actually went through those events in their own ways, and for them to revisit these really heavy situations on set was very cathartic for them,” Fred Nguyen Khan, who plays Bon, added. “Vietnamese immigrants from that generation don’t like talking about the trauma that they endured and they tend to bottle it in. But seeing some of the actors on set that went through that just crying and hugging is a really good indicator of how hopeful this can be for conversations to start and for them to start healing in a natural, healthy way.”

The Sympathizer air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and streams on Max


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