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What is The Ballad of a Small Player, the book that will be adapted into Netflix’s Macao movie? 

The novel is set to be turned into a Netflix film starring Colin Farrell, Tilda Swinton and Fala Chen, with shooting scheduled to take place this summer in Macao
  • Written by Lawerence Osborne, the 2014 novel follows an English gambler in Macao whose life shifts dramatically when he meets a mainland Chinese call girl

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UPDATED: 11 Jun 2024, 3:52 pm

Macao and several of its casinos are about to be transformed into a one giant film set once production of the Netflix feature, The Ballad of a Small Player, kicks off in the city later this month, with the on-location shoot reportedly lasting until August. 

Little is so far known about the film except for key members of the cast and crew, which include director Edward Berger (All Quiet on the Western Front), Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisheer), Tilda Swinton (Okja) and Fala Chen (Shang Chi). 

[See more: Colin Farrell and Tilda Swinton are among top stars shooting a Netflix film in Macao]

While information about the movie is sparse, the book that the movie is being adapted from does hold clues about the type of film that Berger will be directing. Read on to find out more about Lawrence Osborne’s cult novel. 

What is The Ballad of a Small Player about? 

The Ballad of a Small Player tells the story of Doyle, a lawyer, self-proclaimed “Lord” and gambling addict from England who is living as an exile in Macao after swindling a considerable sum of money from one of his clients. Doyle is shown frittering away his ill-gained fortunes at the baccarat tables in the city and appears to be headed for a path of self-destruction until he meets a young mainland Chinese prostitute named Dao-Ming, with whom he builds a connection. 

[See more: On World Book Day, here are some of the best Chinese books about Macao]

The book can be described as a crossover between John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, with its focus on the themes of excess, tragedy and the supernatural. More of a character study than a straightforward narrative, the book strips bare the different facets of Doyle, from his fatalism to his loneliness. 

The book is a relatively short read with the Hogarth 2015 edition featuring only 257 pages. 

What is The Ballad of a Small Player, the book that will be adapted into Netflix’s Macao movie? 
Photo by Carl Raw

Who are the characters of The Ballad of a Small Player

The main character of the novel is Doyle whose full name is never disclosed in the book. Dao-Ming is a mainland Chinese prostitute from the village of Sando in Sichuan who develops a unique relationship with him. Other notable secondary characters include a high-roller nicknamed “Grandma” and Doyle’s two gambling friends Adrian Lipett and Solomon McClaskey. 

[See more: Fernando Pessoa’s ‘The Book of Disquiet’ is being translated into Chinese]

Netflix hasn’t revealed any details on the roles that each of the main cast members will play, but given his leading man status, Colin Farrell appears to be headlining the film as Doyle. Fala Chen, on the other hand, seems well suited to play Dao-Ming given that she is a Sichuan native and possesses Mandarin, Cantonese and English skills required to play the character. Tilda Swinton could be playing Mrs. Butterworth, the client that Doyle swindles from, but that’s just a guess at this stage.

Who is the author of The Ballad of a Small Player

Born in England in 1958, Lawerence Osborne was already an established author when he published the novel in 2014, having written the critically acclaimed title The Forgiven, as well as other books on topics varying from wine to life as a foreigner in Bangkok. 

[See more: International and mainland Chinese authors return to the Macau Literary Festival]

In addition to being a novelist, Osborne has also worked as a journalist, writing for publications such as The New Yorker, Salon and men’s Vogue. Currently living in Bangkok, the 66-year-old is known for being a globetrotter, having lived in a number of places including France, Hong Kong, the United States and Mexico. 

Why did the author choose to set The Ballad of a Small Player in Macao? 

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, author Lawerence Osborne mentioned that his first visit to Macao was for the purpose of renewing his visa while residing in Hong Kong. The writer ended up staying in the city for several days and noted that “I started doing what everybody does there: playing the tables.” The experience proved to be impactful, with the author mentioning that he was inspired by the “supernatural element” of the Macao casinos. 

[See more: With World Book Day approaching, here are your 10 must-read volumes on Macao]

The book also appears to be a way for the writer to artistically express his experience in the gaming city, as it features various semi-autobiographical elements. Indeed, Osborne mentioned in an interview with NPR that “I’ve gambled quite a lot in Macao…I used to go to that same Hotel Lisboa. And very much like this character [Doyle], I used to dress up in my suit.”

The Hotel Lisboa is one of the key locations mentioned in Osborne’s novel
The Hotel Lisboa is one of the key locations mentioned in Osborne’s novel – Photo by Elina Sitnikova

The Ballad of a Small Player is mainly set in Macao, meaning that there are copious amounts of references to real-life locations. For starters, the main character lives in the Hotel Lisboa and gambles at a number of casinos including the Lisboa Casino, the Venetian, the Grand Emperor and the Greek Mythology in Taipa, which closed down in late 2015. 

Some of the non-gaming places that the protagonist visits include Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro (San Ma Lo), Rua da Felicidade, Clube Militar, Fernando’s, Hac Sa Beach and the A-Ma Temple. 

[See more: A guide to Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung movie locations in Macao]

Other places mentioned in passing include Colegio de Santa Rosa de Lima, the Canidrome, the Colosseum at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pastelaria Koi Kei. 

Director Edward Berger and his cinematographer James Friend began scouting for locations last year, as revealed by Berger’s two instagram posts from ZAPE. 

What are the reviews like? 

Upon its release in 2014, The Ballad of a Small Player was generally well-received by critics, with the New York Times and NPR listing it among their recommended books of 2014. The latter described it as “a captivating story about the nature of addiction, the power of the supernatural, and the freedom that may come from throwing everything to chance.” 

Adrian Turpin of the Literary Review was similarly full of praise, calling the book “a brisk, electrifying read, as elegant in negotiating the rackety world it depicts as its bow-tied narrator.” 

[See more: Take a tour of Macao’s forgotten landmarks with New York Times best-selling author Paul French]

Catherine Nixey of The Times, however, was less than impressed with the novel’s characterisation of Doyle, pointing out that “the Englishness here…feels outdated and stereotypical – the literary equivalent of letterboxes and tweed.” 

What is The Ballad of a Small Player, the book that will be adapted into Netflix’s Macao movie? 
Photo by Michał Parzuchowski

Why does the book cover feature Hong Kong? 

Although the novel is predominantly set in Macao, Doyle makes two important trips to Hong Kong during the course of the story, visiting places such as Hollywood Road, the Intercontinental, and Lamma Island. The choice of the Hong Kong skyline, however, is questionable, even if it is arguably more internationally recognisable than Macao’s.  

Where can I purchase or borrow The Ballad of a Small Player

Physical and digital copies of The Ballad of a Small Player can be purchased online via the retailers listed on the Penguin website. Those in Macao can also borrow the book from the Macao Central Library, Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, Taipa Library or Ilha Verde Library. 

UPDATED: 11 Jun 2024, 3:52 pm

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