Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Jeffrey Hantover’s “The Jewel Trader of Pegu”

Jeffrey Hantover, who has written on social issues, art, and culture for publications in the United States, Europe, and Asia, is the author of The Jewel Trader of Pegu, now available in paperback.

Here he lays out some ideas for cast and director of a film adaptation of the novel:
As a writer in these dark economic days with royalties far south of John Grisham’s, I follow a prudent investment strategy – I buy weekly lottery tickets and daydream who will star in the movie of my book. An East-West love story set in 16th century Venice and a Burmese city turned to ashes will not come cheap, but I keep dreaming and have a neighborhood tailor on call ready to let out my tux for Oscar night.

When writing The Jewel Trader of Pegu, Adrien Brody was always Abraham, the tall, melancholy Venetian Jew who reluctantly travels to Pegu to buy stones for his uncle. In his Academy Award winning performance in The Pianist and the recent Cadillac Records, we sense beneath Brody’s angular face a churning inner world. He could with a simple expression or glance convey Abraham’s doubts and ethical turmoil.

For Mya, the Peguan peasant woman whose love redeems Abraham, I struggled to get beyond a generic vision of a young Asian woman, attractive but not so strikingly and immediately beautiful that she would make Abraham’s slowly growing affection unbelievable. Forgoing a world-wide search to rival David O. Selznick’s for Scarlett O’Hara, I have found my Mya in Tillotama Shome, the Indian actress who as the housemaid Alice steals Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. I stare at the first headshot on her website and her quiet beauty silences the world outside my window. She will, as she did in Monsoon Wedding, play against her natural beauty but with only the tilt of her head and a faint smile reveal how strikingly lovely she is. She will in the penultimate scene of the film stand on the river bank, the smoke of her lover’s body swirling about her and she will break our hearts.

My first choice, Saeed Jaffrey the Indian actor who played Michael Caine and Sean Connery’s guide in John Huston’s The Man Who Would be King, is now too old to play Win, the native jewel broker, but Eric Tsang, a popular Hong Kong actor, short, plump and with a clown’s plastic face has the range to be both comic and sympathetic.

With every rewrite, the role of Antonio, the Portuguese mercenary, grew in importance as did my affection for his integrity and loyalty. Gabriel Byrne has the weary, sad-eyed look of a man who has seen the worst of human nature and lives with no illusions. If the director wants a younger Antonio, Clive Owen is ready in the wings. Liev Schreiber would be a thoughtful yet lively Joseph, Abraham’s cousin and the extroverted, sensualist to Abraham’s dour observer of life. Though older than the character is written, Jeremy Irons would make in a cameo appearance a deliciously villainous Jesuit. An even more central cameo would be Abraham’s uncle. Sir Michael Gambon, best known as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, or Sir Ian Holm, Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings, have the lined and expressive faces that in a wordless scene at the film’s end could express with look and gesture the uncle’s mix of faith and sadness as he awaits Abraham’s return.

My director of choice would be either Ang Lee or Mira Nair, both of whom have captured the sensuous visual world of Asia and the inner worlds of characters from East and West. If their schedules won’t allow it, then there is Tom Tywker, the German director of Heaven, one of my favorite films and a beautiful meditation on the redemptive power of love.
Read an excerpt from The Jewel Trader of Pegu, and learn more about the author and his work at Jeffrey Hantover's website.

Browse inside the paperback with its P.S. section of insights, interviews and more.

The Page 69 Test: The Jewel Trader of Pegu.

--Marshal Zeringue