A movie about a dictionary

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I love dictionaries as much as anyone, but I'm not sure that I'd ever advocate making a film about any of my favorite dictionaries.  Yet this has now been suggested for the Xīnhuá zìdiǎn 新华字典 (trad. 新華字典) (New China character dictionary):

"Will You Watch a Movie Based on Dictionary?" (Anhui News 7/8/15)

At first, one might think this is satire, but when you read this Chinese article about it, you realize they're serious.

The Xīnhuá zìdiǎn is small (it easily fits on the palm of your hand), yet with legible type, and — in the editions that I prefer, it is printed on thin (yet durable) paper and has a pliable cover, so it's truly portable.  It is also very cheap:  when I first started going to China in the early 80s, I bought many copies of the Xīnhuá zìdiǎn and kept them all over the place — in my office, in various rooms at home, and in my backpack.  When it comes to Chinese characters, this is my vade mecum, especially in its bilingual version (Xinhua Dictionary with English Translation).

Clark, Paul. "Han-Ying shuangjie Xinhua Zidian (Xinhua Dictionary with English Translation) (review)." China Review International, 2001, 8.2, 387–388.

It's hard to say exactly how many characters are included in the Xīnhuá zìdiǎn.  I would estimate that it includes approximately 8,500 characters, but counting their simplified, traditional, and variant forms, there are said to be over 13,000 different graphic variations in the latest edition of the dictionary.

The Xīnhuá zìdiǎn is primarily a dictionary of single characters, but one feature I really like about this little marvel is that it also includes thousands of character combinations and tips for how to form words, so that it also functions as a highly streamlined cídiǎn 词典 ("word dictionary").  Another great advantage is that it has pinyin for the characters, words, and phrases in it.

Because of all the virtues of the Xīnhuá zìdiǎn sketched above, it has sold well over four hundred million copies, but would it make an entertaining or edifying subject for a movie?  I have my doubts, and am not alone in them.

Some Internet users voiced their doubts as to how a dictionary can be made into a film. "A dictionary made into a movie? Would it be a movie of turning pages? Or perhaps the romance between the phonetic alphabet and the characters?" said netizen @LinnnJiaaHuuui.

(quoted in the Anhui News article cited above)

It so happens that a film about the Xīnhuá zìdiǎn would fall into the category of what are  known in China as IP movies, or Intellectual Property movies, which are based on or titled after a popular song, slang expression, pet phrase, and so forth.  Apparently the name "Xīnhuá zìdiǎn" is so often on people's lips that it is thought to be an easy, natural subject for a film.  The suspect quality of such films is addressed in the Anhui News article:

Wang Hailin, vice president of the Chinese Film Literature Society, however, can't help but worry about such a trend in the movie industry.

"The lack of original scripts forced us to turn to the Internet buzzwords, but many of them are not proper movie sources," he said. "It would be pathetic for the film industry to rely too much on the hot spots."

Han Xiaolin, producer of the movie, said that most IP movies are not aimed at telling a good story. "It is not our producers' pursuit to make a high quality movie, it is more of a way of making money fast," she said.

If even the producer of the film about the Xīnhuá zìdiǎn recognizes that it is just a cheap and dirty way to make money, there's little hope that it will be worth watching.  Indeed, considering the true greatness of this mighty mite, such a movie about it would be nothing short of a travesty.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer]


  1. James Iry said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 9:40 am


  2. Chris Brockett said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 10:10 am

    A rather decent fictitious movie about the making of a dictionary titled in English The Great Passage came out of Japan a couple of years back. The hero is an mis-underemployed linguist who finds his calling. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Passage.

  3. Jacob said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 11:15 am

    Meanwhile, Mel Gibson's "The Professor and the Madman" sits on the shelf…

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 11:26 am

    It's one thing to make movies about interesting people who create dictionaries, it's another thing to make a film about a dictionary.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 11:28 am

    From a colleague:

    Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, a story about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary might have made a decent movie. I recall that the book held my attention for a good while. Who knows what lurks behind the making of the Xinhua cidian?

  6. shubert said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 11:55 am

    The Xīnhuá zìdiǎn was a joke after Cultural Revolution was ended, as a little, rudimental one, is the only one available as a returning gift to a foreign guest who presented a voluminous one.

  7. J. F. said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

    I don't see the problem. First of all, the title doesn't necessarily have to relate to the movie (c.f. "Antichrist" or "Chariots of Fire"). Let's make it a movie about, say, soccer, and the dictionary is mentioned in the title because, well, make up a reason.

    Or indeed, a movie about the making of a dictionary.

    Or a (no doubt inspiring) movie about the role the dictionary played in someone's life.

    Or an anthology of stories based on example sentences in the dictionary.

    Or stories based on the differing meanings of characters. As is well known, Chinese characters are just little pictures.

  8. K Chang said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

    While not impossible, I really don't see how a IP or buzzword like a dictionary would work as a high concept, or even a treatment, muchless a script.

    It may devolve into some campy **** like "National Treasure" (starring Nic Cage) where they find clues to long lost treasures hidden in the nation's most sacred documents. Yeah, right.

  9. shubert said,

    July 9, 2015 @ 4:52 pm

    It is too 露 opposite of implicit, 直 straight, 白 plain as a movie title.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 6:52 am

    There have been US movies bearing popular book titles but not based on the books' actual contents – for example, Woody Allen's "Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex."

  11. Gnoey said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 7:19 am

    I think the movie might work if there is some human interest story behind the dictionary.
    A novel came out in Japan a while ago entitled 「舟を編む」(Fune o amu; literally "Editing a Ship") written by popular author 三浦しをん Miura Shiwon, about the quirky characters involved in the creation of a ficticious dictionary, complete with a romantic side-story! The book became a bestseller and was even made into a movie "The Great Passage" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Passage) that subsequently became Japan's entry for the Best Foreign Film in the 86th Academy Awards! (Didn't win though…) So it is definitely possible to make a decent movie about a dictionary. I would be quite intrigued to see how a movie about 新華字典 plays out!

  12. enkiv2 said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 10:24 am

    While everyone is mentioning 'The Professor and the Madman' as a model for a possible film, I must point out that it's not particularly unusual for the dictionary form to be made into a film in a more literal sense (rather than making a film out of the story behind the creation of a dictionary, making a film that in a sense *is* a dictionary is actually not unusual). A recent example is 'The ABCs of Death', a film comprised of 26 short horror films, each focusing on a word beginning with a particular letter (and forming a riddle or a joke — the actual word in question is shown at the end, forming the punchline of each segment). Using this technique, we can get rid of the need for frame narratives or inter-segment continuity, and instead tie together thematically related stories. (Particularly in horror anthology films like V/H/S, frame stories are the weakest point.)

    I could totally forsee a series of unrelated stories featuring the use of the dictionary, each named by a particular word representing its theme, compiled in order by radical. After all, anthology films have a number of economic benefits over monolithic films.

  13. yastreblyansky said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

    As a small kid, I saw Peter Ustinov playing Dr. Johnson on television (Dr. Google says it was 1957!). I sort of remember the tics, but not anything about the dictionary. I wonder if anybody would like to try a biopic about patriotic Noah Webster.

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