This is where it all began, the whole Ring phenomenon that sprawled across the globe. It’s always interesting to go back to the source of any modern movie and see how the original was stretched, reimagined and downright warped into something unrecognizable, like Chinese whispers, changing every time it was repeated.
Ring was published in Japan in 1991. It spawned many movie incarnations – the first Japanese version, a Korean Version, and the American version starring Naomi Watts. In all versions the protagonist who takes on the curse of the videotape is female – it is something of a shock to realise that was never meant to be by the original author. Asakawa, the journalist who uncovers the secret of the tape in the book, is male. He is not a single parent, either, he has a wife and a year old daughter, not a 5 or 8 year old boy.
It’s also a shock to meet Sadako in the book again, after imbibing images of her bloodshot eyeball staring through a curtain of black hair in the movies. Far from the terror of the tube, she is a pitiful lonely figure, and she was 19 when she died. Neither were there any horses involved (one of the strongest images from the American version).
But the most significant single difference between this novel and most of the movies it spawned is that it is not strictly a horror story – it does in fact have strong elements of science fiction in its tale of a virus created at a sanatorium in Japan and psychically placed on a videotape to be spread throughout the world.
Asakawa becomes curious about the mysterious deaths of four teenagers, including his niece. They all died of massive heart attacks, after watching a videotape at a mountain resort. Asakawa is not as sympathetic a character as the females who took his place in the movies. He’s a selfish husband, a thoughtless father, and a pretentious reporter. He best friend Ryuji is a weird misogynist who wants to see the end of the world and claims to have raped three women – though this might just be some nasty mind game he likes to play. In the movie versions he is usually the female reporter’s ex-husband.
The trail leading from four dead teenagers to a mountain resort where the infamous well is concealed is reassuringly familiar, as are salient plot points like the humiliation of Sadako’s mother and father, her ending up in a well, and the island where she lived as a child. But this Sadako grows up into a beautiful young woman with a tragic secret, and an even more tragic end, and not at the hands of either parent. The English translation by Robert Rohmer and Glynne Walley seems to reflect Koji’s style neat, spare style well, building the tension as Asakawa and Ryuji pursue the phantom of Sadako, with only seven days to live.
Anyone who has seen the movies knows what ‘charm’ breaks the curse, but those who have not read the book will not know of the original author’s vision of Sadako and her unhappy life. This is what makes the book such compulsive reading – you cannot put it down until, like the protagonist, you know who Sadako is. Even after all these years, and so many different movie interpretations, it is still a chilly, scary cracker of a vision. Sadako doesn’t crawl out of a TV, or glare at anyone with a bloodshot eyeball, but as the pieces of her story are put together, she leaps out of the pages and into the reader’s mind as an agonisingly real character in a way the filmmakers could never grasp.