A set from the Bumi Manusia film, which was mostly shot in Falcon Pictures' Yogyakarta studio. (Photo courtesy of Falcon Pictures)

Everything You Always Wanted to Happen in the Bumi Manusia Film* (*but Were Afraid to Ask)

BY :MIKAEL JOHANI

AUGUST 09, 2019

The wait is, finally, almost over. The film adaptation of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's classic novel "Bumi Manusia," or This Earth of Mankind, gets its red carpet première in Surabaya today.

The choice of the première location was dictated by the fact that most of the novel is set in Wonokromo on the outskirts of the East Java capital in the late 19th century.

The novel is the legendary leftist author's ambitious project to trace the birth of nationalism in Indonesia. It's also a real page-turner featuring a tragic love story between the protagonist Minke – a fictionalized version of Tirto Adhi Soerjo, the "father of Indonesian journalism" – and his beautiful half-Dutch, half-Javanese wife Annelies.

Indonesians have been waiting for the novel to be adapted into film for years. Before Falcon Pictures and Hanung Bramantyo, a commercial director best known for adapting the Muslim romance novel "Ayat-Ayat Cinta" (Verses of Love), stepped in to end the wait, we've had to make do with two stage adaptations of the story: "Nyai Ontosoroh" (based on the character of the matriarch and Minke's mentor of the same name) directed by Faiza Mardzoeki and "Bunga Penutup Abad" (Last Flower of the Century) by Wawan Sofwan, based on Annelies' tragic story.

To give a comparison, Bumi Manusia is to Indonesians what J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" is to fantasy fans. No wonder that public excitement for the film version, ever since it was announced last year, has been tempered with trepidation that it may not hit all the right buttons with Pram's die-hard fans.

And there's no Pram's fan more die-hard than Max Lane, the translator of the "Buru Quartet" novels, of which Bumi Manusia is the first installment. We asked Lane what he would like to see in Hanung's adaptation (and what he fears might actually happen) and also what effects he would like the film to have on Indonesian society.

Max Lane during JG
Max Lane at a Jakarta Globe Reading Club event last year. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)


1. "A film that does not feel Indonesian but pre-Indonesian In both style and genre. Though realistically, genre-wise, the style of this adaptation will probably flow on from the contemporary post-New Order pop genre."

Lane had written a book of essays called "Indonesia Tidak Hadir di Bumi Manusia" (There Is No Indonesia in This Earth of Mankind), in which he argued that Pramoedya deliberately, and perceptively, avoided using the appellation "Indonesia" for a place that was then known as the Dutch East Indies.

Pramoedya is also known to be a fan of pre-Indonesian literature, the dime novels and folk stories written by Indo and Chinese-Indonesian writers in Melayu Pasar (Market Malay) that were rubbished as "bacaan liar" (wild reading matter) by Balai Pustaka, a Dutch-backed publishing company established in 1918 that acted as an ersatz Académie Indonésie in the Dutch East Indies by only publishing works in high, formal Malay favored by writers from Sumatra.

2. "A film where we feel and can appreciate the processes whereby Minke SERIOUSLY STARTS (but only STARTS) to change and mature as a personality, becoming more aware that he doesn't actually know his country."

Director Hanung said he decided to cast teen heartthrob Iqbaal Ramadhan, who played Dilan in the teen movie franchise Dilan 1990 and Dilan 1991, because he saw similarities between Minke and today's millennials. In one interview with CNN Indonesia, Hanung compared Minke's criticisms of the Dutch colonial government with Indonesian millennials' tendency to call out the present government using Twitter memes.

The comparison is intriguing, but does not stand up to detailed scrutiny. Lane said, "Of course, perhaps [the comparison] can be a metaphor for the contemporary imperialist-Indonesia relationship, as regards "millennials" as a demographic group. But to be true to Pram, there can be no deliberate comparison with the present. If the comparison/similarity is valid, it is valid because there are indeed objectively some similarities and NOT because Pram was making comments on today."

3. "A Minke who has not significantly changed but is beginning to be self-aware of his own weaknesses."

Bumi Manusia is the first book in the Buru Quartet, in it we don't yet have the complete, enlightened Minke. The temptation is there to depict him as an über-social justice warrior, but let's hope Hanung does not take his "millennial Minke" project too far. 

Throughout the Buru Quartet, Minke's long process of (re)education is more often the product of his active interactions with other more knowledgeable, wiser characters – Nyai Ontosoroh, the De la Croix sisters, his Dutch teacher Magda Peters, the long-suffering farmer Trunodongso – than the result of monkish academic meditations.   

As Lane said, "Minke, in the Bumi Manusia storyline, from the beginning, is a 'character type in formation' with the formation process still only at an early stage, even at the end of the book.

Furthermore, the character formation process takes place in the midst of colonial-racial originating dynamics. The single biggest educational influence on Minke during the period of the story in the novel, is a village girl sold as a concubine [the matriarch Nyai Ontosoroh], essentially raped and then educated by her rapist."

4. "A film where women are the motors of positive progress of character and men are either stupid or, more rarely like Minke, willing to realize they know nothing and must learn."

5. "VERY IMPORTANT: That Minem [a milkmaid who has a baby out of wedlock in Nyai Ontosoroh's Wonokromo ranch] appears and that at least subconsciously the audience is challenged to recognize who she is. For me, she is somebody who has been freed from Javanese feudalism via her immediate material conditions. She is essentially an early proletarian. Paid wages. Works on a 'process line.' Under a money-eyed boss (Annelies). A cheeky liar with a consciousness. [She's a] hint of things to come, possibly to come.

Minke's liberation is gradual, intellectual and experientially rich. Minem's is immediate and rich only in its immediacy."

6. "That the brutality and meaning of Annelies's rape by her own brother is presented to confront the audience.

Annelies must appear as a character driven by emotions of which she is not conscious."

7. "It would be great if the contrast was there between the clumsiness of innocent love-sex [between Minke and Annelies] and the impotence of lust-in-defeat."

8. "Minke's Bupati [district head] father [should be shown up as] the one character type still around [today], while Minke's mother is the one character type that is now gone forever."

A classic scene from the book that made it to the movie trailer is one where a modernized, woke Minke coming home from his Dutch high school in Surabaya desperately finds himself still having to kowtow to his Bupati father who presently castigates him for forgetting his Javanese roots while condescendingly patting him with a horsewhip.

In true Hanung-melodrama mode, the trailer shows Minke's Bupati father actually whipping him with the riding crop.

9. "A big jump in the number of people reading the book and other Pram books, or rereading them."

Although the book did not directly criticize Suharto's New Order, it was banned by the regime's censors less than a year after its publication in 1980, on the vague grounds that it promoted "Marxist and Leninist thinking."

After Reformasi in 1998, the books reappeared on bookstores' shelves and are never out of print, even though the ban was never rescinded by the government.

10. "More public discussions on how Pram and other important writers should be read and studied at school."

Even though Bumi Manusia is a modern classic that has been translated into 20 languages, it has never been taught in Indonesian schools.

Bumi Manusia will be out in cinemas on Aug. 15 along with another adaptation of Pramoedya's book, "Perburuan" (The Fugitive), directed by Richard Oh.

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