In Kevin Kwan’s best-seller, Rachel (Constance Wu) meets Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), the imposing mother of her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding), while surrounded by Eleanor’s friends, but screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim wanted to make the pivotal sequence more intimate on screen.
“In the end, you want to pare it down to Rachel, Nick, and Eleanor,” Lim says. “Eleanor is such a key figure, it felt like she deserved her own space in this scene.”
That wasn’t the only change the two made for their adaptation: In the novel, Rachel and Eleanor’s first interaction involves an awkward offering of mandarin oranges, from the former to the latter. (Rachel had asked her mother what she should bring, and her mom was trying to be helpful by mentioning mandarin oranges as a traditional gift.) Eleanor immediately thinks Rachel’s a fool for presenting her with a gift better suited for Chinese New Year than for meeting the parents — and things only go downhill from there, as Eleanor’s henchwomen begin interrogating Rachel about her job, her family, and even her salary.
Chiarelli and Lim did their best to keep as many details as possible (the pair tried hard to incorporate the oranges, which “didn’t go so well,” Chiarelli admits), but they knew they wouldn’t be able to make the scene match exactly what happened in the book. Their goal wasn’t to adapt every word; it was to make it clear from the first meeting that Rachel and Eleanor came from different backgrounds, and therefore had different values — even if they’re both Asian. “In something like The Big Sick, you obviously get, like, ‘Oh, this is a Pakistani guy going out with a white blond girl.’ You see what the issue is,” Lim says. “With this one, she’s a Chinese woman, so why is this happening? And she’s doing well, she’s not like a surfer with tattoos. Why is Eleanor so against her? So the big thing became, it’s because she is essentially different.”
EW has an exclusive script page from the scene below:
Read on as Chiarelli and Lim explain their thinking behind the scene’s key beats.
Part One: Nick’s plea
Nick barely speaks, but that’s because he, like Rachel, hopes Eleanor approves. “The few lines he has, he’s setting Rachel up,” Lim explains. “‘She’s an economics professor — it doesn’t get more impressive than that! You must like her, Mom!’ Those are all the things that are unsaid… It’s a loaded moment for him.”
And for those wondering why Nick isn’t trying a little harder to make Eleanor see it from his point of view, well, it’s a cultural thing. “There was a discussion that came up with the producers that was, ‘Well, why wouldn’t he just say this to his mom or say that,’ and the Asians [in the room] were like, ‘That’s crazy!'” Lim recalls, laughing. “You don’t just talk about your needs and wants and feelings with your parents. That’s insanity!”
Part Two: Eleanor’s dismissal
Eleanor’s kitchen proved the perfect setting to demonstrate her dominance, and marked another important change from the book: On the page, Rachel clocks Eleanor as the type of woman who enjoys having a kitchen, but would never actually cook in it. Here, Eleanor’s watching over the preparations for the tan hua party. “The two big aspects of Asian culture are food and parenting,” Lim says. “It’s all intertwined. This shows Eleanor’s power.” Her dismissive turn toward the hors d’oeuvres also emphasizes that point. “She’s showing that the food is more important than meeting her son’s girlfriend,” Chiarelli laughs. “It is kind of awful, but still.”
Awful, yes, but not aggressive — a distinction Yeoh wanted to make from the beginning. “We always talked about how Eleanor could never be the monster-in-law,” Chiarelli says. “She’s concerned, but she’s not at DEFCON 4 or anything.”
While answering Eleanor’s probing question, Rachel rambles a bit, but she’s doing so because she’s eager to tell her mother’s immigrant story, which she thinks Eleanor will admire. Spoiler alert: It gets lost in translation. (Eleanor puts family, not independence, first.) “What we wanted to hit again and again is that these women are both Asian and both Chinese, but speak two entirely different languages,” Lim says. “Rachel wants to impress this woman, but she’s speaking about things that play well in the American narrative, that play great with meeting a possible American in-law. All Eleanor is hearing is, ‘Huh, so you’re a woman with a mother who clearly doesn’t value her family, and you’re a person more interested in following your own personal passions.'”
That said, Rachel deserves some credit for holding her ground. “The nice thing is that there’s nothing dumb that Rachel’s saying,” Chiarelli points out. “When people get nervous, they go, ‘What am I saying? I should just stop talking!’ But Rachel’s being direct. It’s just absolutely the wrong thing to say.”
Part Three: Rachel’s uncertainty
Eleanor’s reaction is tough to read, but that was Chiarelli and Lim’s goal from the beginning: to have her come across warm and cordial, but also cold. Yeoh “wasn’t here to play the villain,” Lim says. “Not that the character in the book is villainous, but she has this fun, larger-than-life aspect to her, and Michelle wanted to have a deeper, believable, authentic layer to her… She could say something way meaner, but Eleanor is a smart, sophisticated woman, and it’s not the Asian mom way in Singapore to just show your hand and say something openly rude. She knows how to play the game.”
After all, Chiarelli adds, “She’s trying to protect her family. She knows how hard this is. She’s watched it with Astrid [Gemma Chan], and she knows it from her own experience, that when you bring in something new to this organism that is Singapore, it’s really tough.”
Ultimately, Eleanor “reminded me of my mother and every other Asian mother,” Lim, who grew up in Malaysia and helped make sure the Crazy Rich Asians script remained culturally authentic, explains. “[Her actions] come from a place of love. Anything that she does, you can trace her motivation back to her fierce devotion to her son and to her family.”
But just to be clear: Eleanor wasn’t giving a compliment when she labels Rachel “American.” “That’s what Rachel has to learn as the movie goes on,” Chiarelli explains. “It’s fun to watch her figure it out.” At this rate, Rachel will speak fluent high-society (passive) aggression soon enough.
Crazy Rich Asians is in theaters now.