Wolf Totem – the book vs the film

I walked to town recently to see the film of a book I read several years ago. The theater I saw it in was huge and there were only three of us there. Wolf Totem was in Mandarin with English subtitles. Fortunately for the audience, there isn’t much dialogue so there isn’t that much to read if you don’t speak the language but the story—through the panoramic visuals—had a powerful message about mankind meddling with nature. In China, this film has earned more than $110 million U.S. I couldn’t find out how much it has earned in the U.S. where I saw it.

Consider the fact that pollution is not exclusive to China, and the United States, for instance, has more than 1,300 superfund sites—Superfund sites are polluted locations requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contaminations. – epa.gov

In addition, the book and the film also offer another way to learn about China, it’s people and their humanity.

Jiang Rong is the pen name for Lu Jiamin, the author, a Chinese citizen. Set during the Cultural Revolution, Wolf Totem describes the education of an intellectual living with nomadic herders in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

The publisher of Wolf Totem said the novel was an epic Chinese tale and that’s true. Wolf Totem taught me a lot about this almost extinct culture. I learned about the fascinating connection between wolves and Mongolians and why this connection may have been the reason why Genghis Khan was so successful in his conquests.

I recommend the film more than the novel to anyone who wants to learn about the life of the Mongols and another perspective of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. If you can’t see the film, then the book is worth reading too.

However, the theme that runs through the novel of maintaining a balance with nature is a bit overdone—I didn’t get this impression from the film. In the novel, I got the message the first time the characters talked about it but then the topic comes up repeatedly—a bit too much but an insignificant criticism of a book worth reading and a film that I think is even more powerful.

I won’t give away the ending, but don’t expect it to be happy. Most Chinese novels don’t end with happy endings. The ending for the film was different than the novel, and I actually liked it better—a powerful and breathtakingly beautiful film.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the lusty love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

#1 - Joanna Daneman review posted June 19 2014

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2 Responses to Wolf Totem – the book vs the film

  1. Debbie says:

    HI Lloyd, I loved the book,years ago when I read it. I havent seen the movie yet. I disagree though about the message being over done. I didnt percieve him as so much ‘having a message’ but just describing his life there, and life is harsh in Mongolia. I read the book just after I had visited Mongolia and a lot rings true. the life of the nomads can be extremely harsh in winter, yet is also so amazing.

    i think the book successfully described the difference between nomadic cultures and settled cultures. the author really got into the heart of what it means to live with ‘wolf totem’ – at once feared but also greatly honoured. Chinghis Khan was said to be the offspring of a wolf and a deer.

    I’ll have to keep a look-out for the movie!

    • True, the book did successfully describe the difference between nomadic cultures and the urban dwellers—and I walked away thinking the nomads were more noble and caring then the urban dwellers who seemed too detached from the environment almost as if the environment and nature was a pest and they had to beat it into submission.

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