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Show of the Week: White Deer Plain

Drama based on influential novel is moving, critically acclaimed, and a huge ratings flop

White Deer Plain 《白鹿原》 is probably the best produced Chinese TV drama series this year, but it might also be the unluckiest.

Based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Chen Zhongshi, the story describes the relationships and conflicts between two families of living on the White Deer Plain in Shaanxi province, across several generations, against the backdrop of larger political transformations taking place in the Chinese countryside during the first half of the 20th century.

The novel, which is set in Chen’s own hometown, sold 1.6 million copies and won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, China’s highest literature award. It has been regarded by many critics as “the most difficult novel for adapting into film.” Though it has been adapted several times for the cinema, stage, and even as an art-book, Chen had stated, before his death last year, that he was most looking forward to the TV drama version.

This 85-episode drama reportedly took 16 years of preparation, with the production budget reaching 230 million RMB. The cast is made up of veteran actors. Before filming, the cast had to spend one month in the countryside to experience local life and rural society behind the story’s major events.

The show premiered on Anhui TV and Jiangsu TV on April 16. However, after just one episode, it was taken off the air. As for the reason why, the two station gave identical replies on their official Weibo accounts—“To achieve better broadcasting impact, the TV series White Deer Plain will be broadcast someday in the future. Thanks for all your attention.”

Naturally, such vague excuses didn’t fly with the audience, and all kinds of wild guesses exploded on the internet. Some speculated that it was due to the novel’s political baggage. Actually, the original novel, before it was published, had also been edited several times due to its heavy political content. It was revised again in 1997 for the same reason. Others suspected it’s due to the sexual content of the show, which could be deemed “sensitive” by government regulations. There were also conspiracy theorists who thought that it wasn’t due to censorship at all: Because the hit drama In the Name of People (which has its own share of politics) was still running at the time of White Deer Plain‘s release, the producers simply balked at the competition, and faked a “takedown” to get attention and increase viewer numbers with a later release date.

Whatever the reason, the show came back on May 10. Unfortunately, this wasn’t very good timing either. Though In the Name of the People was done, the second season of Ode to Joy, another breakout drama, was on the air. In terms of the ratings competition, it seems that an elegaic family epic in the countryside has no chance against the fluffy relationship escapades of young women in the city, even though the Douban grade for White Deer Plain (9.0 out of 10) far outclassed that of Ode to Joy (dropping from 5.2 to 5.1 since we reviewed it last week at TWOC).

Critics speak highly of the quality of the show, saying that it managed to maintain the essence and spirit of the original novel, but translated it in a dramatic way that’s more appropriate for the screen.  But in today’s TV industry, this is by no mean a ticket to popularity. With viewers used to shoddily produced but glitzy works, why should they invest in a show of substance when they can tune into a glamorized escapist fantasy? Though its supporters said that White Deer Plain is a work that will be deserving of a rewatch even after 20 years from now, the biggest danger from its current outing is that the poor ratings will scare away creators and producers from projects of quality and substance in the future.


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