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France's Annaud to direct 'Wolf Totem' movie

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud
Michel Spingler, Associated Press

HONG KONG (AP) — The French director of "Seven Years in Tibet," Jean-Jacques Annaud, will direct an adaptation of the best-selling Chinese novel "Wolf Totem" — the story of the relationship between Mongolian nomads and wolves seen by some as a critique of Communist rule.

Production company Beijing Forbidden City Film Co. made the announcement in a statement obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Annaud, whose credits also include "The Bear," "The Lover" and "Enemy at the Gates," will bring to the big screen one of China's most popular and widely debated books in recent years.

Written under the pseudonym Jiang Rong, "Wolf Totem" is about a Beijing intellectual who moves to the grasslands of China's Inner Mongolia region, where he comes to appreciate the adversarial and codependent relationship between the wolves and Mongolian herders. But Han Chinese settlers upset the ecological balance when they exterminate the wolves, leading to a rat plague and overgrazing by wild sheep that turns the grasslands barren.

The settlers are a metaphor for China's rapid economic development without regard for the environmental fallout while the wolves are a symbol of individualism, according to Penguin Books, which bought the English rights to the book.

"The wolf means freedom, the mother of democracy, and China opposes freedom more than anything else," Jiang said in a 2005 interview with The New York Times.

But "Wolf Totem," first published in 2004, escaped censorship and went on to sell more than 3 million copies in China — and likely many more pirated copies — counting among its fans businessmen who saw parallels between hunting and corporate strategy.

The novel, which was translated into 30 languages, won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 — an aspiring Asian counterpart to Britain's Booker Prize.

Adding to the intrigue, Jiang, who spent six years on the novel, drawing from his own time in the Inner Mongolian grasslands, refused to reveal his real name for years. He was later identified as Lu Jiamin, an activist involved in the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which the military dispersed, killing at least hundreds.

Annaud will have to make an apolitical interpretation of the novel to pass Chinese film censorship. The Beijing Forbidden City Film Co. statement avoids the novel's political overtones, describing it as "an environmental protection-themed novel about the relationship between man and nature, man and animal."

The choice of Annaud is also interesting because he directed "Seven Years in Tibet," starring Brad Pitt. China was upset by his portrayal of harsh Chinese rule in Tibet in the story of an Austrian explorer's relationship with a young Dalai Lama. The Beijing Forbidden City Film Co. statement does not mention the movie in Annaud's biography.

It said the French director read "Wolf Totem" and approached the Chinese production company about making the film. Annaud, who won a best foreign film Oscar for his 1976 debut "Black and White in Color," was also hired because of his prior experience in working with animals on "The Bear," a cub's coming-of-age story, and "Two Brothers," the story of twin tiger cubs, the statement said.

Annaud was quoted as saying that he plans to spend a year and a half training wolves and sheep, six months on shooting and another year on editing and special effects.

The film's budget was not announced.