In Chinese literature only a handful of texts are the equal of Journey to the West, written in the 16th century by Wu Cheng’en. The basic – slightly mangled – premise: the monk Xuanzang embarks, accompanied by the spirits of a monkey, a pig and a fish, on a pilgrimage to find the sacred texts of Buddha.
In bringing a new adaptation of the story to the small screen, The New Legends of Monkey (Sundays, 6pm, ABC from January 28) must contend with a number of things, not least of which is ‘s peculiar relationship with an earlier, seemingly more definitive but infinitely cheaper adaptation, 1978’s Monkey. Produced in Japan as Saiyuki and adapted into English by the BBC – Peter Woodthorpe, who notably voiced Gollum in the 1978 Ralph Bakshi film and 1981 BBC radio adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, was the voice of the pig spirit, Pigsy – the series became a staple of kids TV in .
Let’s get one thing straight out of the box: this is not that show. It’s not even that version. Instead, the new series, written by Jacquelin Perske, Craig Irvin and Samantha Strauss, and directed by Gerard Johnstone and Craig Irvin, tries to bring an elevated interpretation of the story to a new audience.
The original Monkey was a cheap patchwork of B-effects and absurd dubbing, complete with some inappropriate inclusions that would end up in the dubbing dustbin in 2018 should anyone decide to dust it off.
Masako Natsume’s Monkey was overplayed, Toshiyuki Nishida and Shiro Kishibe as Pigsy and Sandy could have stepped straight out of panto and Masako Natsume – a girl – seemed at the time to be peculiar casting as Tripitaka, a boy.
The New Legends of Monkey is a far more sophisticated piece. Chai Hansen’s Monkey is a more complex creature, Pigsy (Josh Thomson) and Sandy (Emilie Cocquerel) are played with more nuance, and in a strange homage to the original, Tripitaka – played by Luciane Buchanan – is indeed a girl, dressed as a boy. The story here, as with the much-loved earlier adaptation, is remarkably faithful to the original story, with some touches that borrow more from the playbook of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer than the older, more arcane texts of Wu Cheng’en.
Tripitaka is, to some extent, our Buffy, working as a waitress when we meet her, and startled to discover that her customer is the demon which had earlier stolen the golden crown needed to release the Monkey King from the statue in which he is imprisoned. Everything goes pretty much as you’d expect, and, with Monkey unleashed, it’s game on. He, of course, being such a chaotic spirit, isn’t that interested in Tripitaka’s greater mission of enlightenment, but it doesn’t take too much to nudge all of the pieces of this jigsaw into the more familiar arrangement of the story.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about The New Legends of Monkey is that it’s good, though if you’re a diehard fan of the earlier adaptation you have to come to this with an open mind. It is elegantly modern, at least as far as a predominantly period story can be, but it remains oddly familiar, even when the two versions of the story deviate and meander around some of the story points of the much older, 16th-century text.
The series gently bends your expectations and plays with some modern (and seemingly outmoded) ideas of gender and power. In this story Tripitaka uses the identity of the boy monk to embark on a journey that she, as a girl, would never be permitted to take. Conversely, the restless and disruptive Monkey yearns to escape from her and the magical tether which, effectively, binds him to embarking on the journey to the west alongside her. This is crisp and joyful. A little silly where it needs to be, and not so different from the adaptation of our collective childhood that it’s uncertain and unfamiliar. OK, might be a stretch, but this Monkey, like the last, is gently, and thrillingly, magical.