Crazy Rich Asians is a lot of things: one of the summer’s most buzzed-about films, the first major Hollywood studio release starring an all–Asian American cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993, a “transportive delight” overflowing with charisma. But it is also, first and foremost, an adaptation of the first book in the best-selling series by Kevin Kwan, himself a Singaporean elite turned U.S. transplant.
How faithful is the movie to the original text? At its most basic, the fish-out-of-water plot remains the same, but where Kwan’s novel sprawls, director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation is more compact, paring down multiple storylines and voices into a single, structurally sound rom-com. Here’s a breakdown of the main similarities and differences between the two. (Spoilers ahead.)
The “Crazy Rich” of Crazy Rich Asians
One of the book’s main voyeuristic appeals is the sheer number of words Kwan dedicates to describing the lavish—and frankly, maddening—levels of wealth that the titular characters hold in their finely manicured hands. The movie delivers some sense of that, with the outcome of the opening scene in the hotel, Astrid’s million-dollar earrings, and the outrageous opulence of Colin and Araminta’s $40 million wedding, but the lack of a narrator deprives viewers of the insider knowledge of how the families made their fortunes (real estate, banking, hospitality—you name it), the obscene amount of dollars they casually drop on luxury items, and the historical and cultural differences between Singapore’s “old money” and the mainland’s nouveau riche that Kwan so clearly relishes recounting.
The Characters Beyond Rachel Chu
The movie features a huge ensemble cast, but many of the actors don’t have more than a couple of speaking lines, and several characters are consolidated into one or just plain missing from the film. (Hi, Nick’s dad?)
Meanwhile, the book dives deeper into the three interconnected families (the Youngs, the Shangs, and the T’siens) and rotates the point of view for different chapters, shining a spotlight on characters outside of Rachel’s core storyline.
On screen, it makes sense to center Rachel as the protagonist around whom everything revolves. Introducing too many characters and their competing motivations on screen would distract from the love story at the heart of the rom-com. Still, it’s a bit of a shame, as I can only imagine how fun it would’ve been to see what actors like Ronny Chieng could’ve done with more time as Eddie, who, if you can believe it, is even more of an insufferable asshole in the text.
With the exception of the rudely axed Philip Young, the movie’s Godot-like patriarch, Astrid’s arc suffers the most pruning in the movie. In both the book and the movie, she confronts her husband Michael after discovering he might be having an affair. From there, the storyline diverges. In the book, Michael admits to having a mistress in Hong Kong and leaves, despite Astrid’s pleas that they stay together and work on their relationship. Astrid then teams up with her ex-fiancé Charlie Wu (played in the film, however briefly, by Harry Shum Jr.) to track down Michael, only to discover that Michael had not been unfaithful. He had only been pretending so that Astrid would divorce him, thus ending his misery at the hands of her snobby family. Charlie, who still harbors feelings for Astrid, ends up secretly pouring money into Michael’s startup, thus giving Michael financial footing and saving his marriage with Astrid.
The movie flattens this convoluted storyline into a simple infidelity plot, with Michael painted as the clear wrongdoer. (Spoiler for the later books: Readers will know that it’s only after the first novel that he becomes a real villain.) Charlie doesn’t even enter the equation until the bonus scene that comes in the middle of the film’s closing credits, when Shum Jr. makes what must be the shortest appearance ever to receive star billing.
Peik Lin Goh
Peik Lin plays the same best-friend role in both the novel and the movie, but the on-screen treatment gets extra weight thanks to the scene-stealing Awkwafina. Movie Peik Lin—and her father, played by Ken Jeong doing what Ken Jeong does best—functions as the film’s comic relief and Rachel’s main ally. Consequently, the film sneaks Peik Lin and her blonde, Ellen-like coif into scenes she was never part of in the novel, like the fancy fete at Tyersall Park.
The book version of Nick’s mother is controlling and conniving. Those traits still apply to the movie version too, but are elevated into something more elegant and menacing by the always excellent Michelle Yeoh. Unlike in the book, in which Su Yi, Nick’s grandmother, plays an equally important role in coldly disapproving of her grandson’s American girlfriend, in the movie Eleanor is the primary opposing force cutting off Rachel at each turn. This stealth war culminates in a mahjong faceoff between Eleanor and Rachel that never happens in the novel but makes for a good cinematic climax.
In both the book and the movie, the final weapon in Eleanor’s arsenal is a dossier she hires a private investigator to put together on Rachel and her family. In the book, Eleanor and Su Yi surprise Nick and Rachel with the results of the investigation at Su Yi’s lodge in Malaysia: Rachel’s father is not dead, but is rather in prison in Shenzhen, China, and her mother Kerry is wanted for kidnapping charges. Stunned, Rachel leaves Nick and starts planning to go to Shenzhen to meet her father. Kerry arrives in Singapore in time to stop Rachel and finally reveals the truth: The man in prison is her abusive husband, whom Kerry left after falling in love with another man and becoming pregnant with his child. Kerry was wanted for kidnapping because she had taken Rachel and fled to America.
The movie takes the basic facts of Kerry’s secret—conceiving Rachel with a man who is not her husband—and reorients them a degree. Instead of disapproving of the “criminal” backgrounds of Rachel’s parents, in the movie Eleanor and Su Yi’s scorn hinges on Kerry’s infidelity. Unlike in the book, Rachel neither attempts to find her father nor interrogates her mother any further.
Crazy Rich Asians the book concludes with more loose ends than it does neat bows. Will Rachel take back up her quest to see her father? Will Nick propose to Rachel? (And if so, will she say yes?) Will the Youngs ever come around, or is Nick henceforth exiled from Tyersall Park? These are the unanswered questions that hang over the denouement, setting up the plot for the next book in Kwan’s trilogy.
The movie, on the other hand, stays true to the rom-com genre and ties up the story with a patented happy ending. Having gained respect for Rachel during the climactic mahjong game, Eleanor finally allows Nick to propose to Rachel—on a plane slated for departure, no less—with her own ring. Rachel accepts, and the film wraps up with an engagement, a party, and a single nod exchanged between Eleanor and Rachel.
Read more in Slate about Crazy Rich Asians
A Guide to Crazy Rich Asians’ Many Cameos, Homages, and Easter Eggs
Crazy Rich Asians Is Crazy, Rich, and Actually Very American
This Week’s Other Asian American Rom-Com Is Streaming on Netflix