in Books, Movies

Review: “The Painted Veil” Film vs. Book

The Painted Veil is exactly what you would expect from a movie with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, two high-profile Academy Award nominated actors. Full of romance, drama, and explosive emotional twists and turns, it’s a movie that is not only visually stunning, but also emotionally saturated.

Basically, it is everything that the book isn’t.

Before I delve into the similarities and differences of the book and the movie, I want to evaluate the movie as a standalone piece, because chances are that most viewers of the film have (unfortunately) not read the original 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham.

The movie takes the bare bones plot, “husband discovers wife having an affair and takes her to cholera-infested Mei-Tan Fu,” and turns it into a tragic fairytale love story about an estranged husband and wife whom, through hardship and suffering in a disease-ridden 3rd world country, discover their true love for each other.

Edward Norton, as much as I adore his works, offers us an oft-seen Edward Norton-style character, cocky and self-confident, but (deep down) scarred intellectual (see: The Incredible Hulk, The Illusionist, American History X). As a standalone role, I found myself rightfully touched by the character transformation he takes as the husband, Walter Fane. Walter, who starts out as a cold, semi-violent “evil-husband” figure is, by the end of the film, transformed into that of a passionate and loving man.

The same could easily be said of Naomi Watts, who goes from unfaithful, cold-hearted wife to passionate, soon-to-be mother in a change of heart as Kitty Garstin. Largely told through her perspective (as the book was as well), the audience really empathizes with her as she begins to break down Walter’s walls and love him.

Yet despite the heartwarming performance, I found myself unimpressed with the Hollywood-ed direction in which both of the actors represented the characters from the novel.

The Painted Veil novel is a dark story about the inevitability of human betrayal. It offers no happy ending, and no platitudes about the painful nature of love and human emotion. Wherein the movie is a tragic fairytale, the book has no qualms about quashing any silly notions of happily ever after. In addition to that, while the plot remains largely the same in the movie, the interpersonal relationship between Walter and Kitty is entirely different in the book.

To begin with, there is, and never will be, any mutual love between Walter and Kitty. That much remains true; they are two people who could have been happy, had they not encountered each other at all. They aren’t star-crossed lovers, so much as they are just utterly wrong for each other. Walter “is madly in love with her” in the beginning, because she is a gorgeous socialite. He never realizes that her selfish, egotistical, narcissistic personality is completely the opposite of the person he thought he was falling in love with.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Kitty was never in love with him, marrying only because she didn’t want to be an old spinster, and because she assumed he would make a lot of money as a doctor. Upon Walter asking her hand in marriage, Kitty responds with “I suppose so.” They are a match made in Hell.

In the book, even after the move to Mei-Tan Fu, and the choleric epidemic they encounter, they never “realize their love” or anything of the sort. If anything, Walter despises himself even more for ever allowing himself to love someone as shallow as Kitty. He doesn’t even want to remain friends, just barely tolerating her, sleeping in a separate bedroom and going out of his way to avoid running in to her. Kitty attempts to try and reconcile, begging him to just “kiss and be friends” so that she isn’t lonely in her struggle to live in such harsh and diseased conditions, but he refuses coldly. Compare this to the film, where he forgives her, and they slowly fall in love. The essential beings of the characters in the film versus in the book are utterly different.

It’s hard for me to say that the movie isn’t as good as the book. Alone, the movie accomplishes everything that audiences expect when they go see a movie like this. It is a tragic story that manages not to be too tragic, maintaining some semblance of a silver lining in the cloud. I can understand why they didn’t directly adapt a book. Books are allowed to be depressing; historically, fictional movies that are depressing don’t sell quite as well as more positive and uplifting films (unless it’s a historical film). The book really was an exploration of painful human truths, and how situations can change, but people rarely can. To each its own, they were interesting in their own respects, but vastly different.


  • Starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton
  • Directed by: John Curran
  • Running Time: 125 minutes
  • Genre: Drama, Romance