Hang on, you might be thinking, wasn’t there already a big new Monkey King film last year? And wasn’t there already a TV series at some point, or were there several? Just how many times has this Monkey actually made it onto the big screen?
A lot, is the short answer. The main character from the classic Ming dynasty novel, Journey to the West, and still one of the most popular mythological figures today, the Monkey King, or 孙悟空 Sun Wu Kong if you use his Chinese name, has had more than his fair share of fame.
The original novel Journey to the West consisted of 100 chapters and left more than enough scope for multiple media adaptations. These episodes detail fantastic adventures right from the hero’s birth from a stone egg and his learning the skills of an immortal to his dangerous quest protecting the famous Buddhist priest.
The actual number of media adaptations of Journey to the West is therefore difficult to discern due to the sheer volume. There have also been many works which have used some influences from the plot or characters and incorporated these into new ideas. To give you an idea, we’ve picked examples of one main project from roughly each decade since the beginning of film production in China.
Silken Web Cave
Year released: 1927
Type: Silent Movie. An adaptation of one chapter of Journey to the West, describing the adventures of the four characters in a cave filled with spiders and demons.
Princess Iron Fan
Year released: 1941
Type: Cartoon. First animated feature film to be released in China. Tells of the episode from within Journey to the West where the Monkey King has a duel with a vengeful Princess whose iron fan is needed to put out the flames devouring a nearby village.
Directors: The Wan brothers – Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming
Havoc in Heaven/Uproar in Heaven
Year released: 1961
Type: Animated film. Very popular and earned the Wan brothers (same as above) international recognition. Created what is considered the height of the Chinese animation industry. It is based on the earlier chapters of Journey to the West, before any journeying gets underway).
Director: Wan Laiming, produced by all four Wan brothers
Havoc in Heaven was also rejuvenated and re-released in 3D in 2012.
Monkey Magic (Japanese name Saiyuki)
Years: 1978 – 1980
Type: Japanese television drama series. It was dubbed into English by the BBC in 1979, and Spanish-dubbed versions also aired in a few countries in South America. A total of two 26-episode seasons aired in Japan. If you want to sing the theme song, you can find the lyrics here.
A Chinese Odyssey
Type: Two part fantasy-comedy film. This film tells of a few Monkey adventures with his travelling companions. It also incorporates slapstick comedy and a love story.
The Forbidden Kingdom
Type: Kung Fu movie. Starring both Jackie Chan and Jet Li, it was released and distributed throughout the US. The plot is closely linked to that of Journey to the West.
Director: Rob Minkoff
One of the central reasons Monkey himself is so loveable is his powers of immortality, and the media seem to have gotten the message. The famous primate has wormed his way into video games, plays, merchandise, comics, and more.