The Sympathizer: A Flawed Adaptation That Misses the Mark

Is the HBO series, The Sympathizer, a necessary adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel? Explore the lack of cohesion, missed emotional depth, and disappointing performance that hinder its success.

The Sympathizer: A Flawed Adaptation That Misses the Mark

The HBO series, The Sympathizer, based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, raises the question of necessity throughout its narrative. However, as viewers navigate through its jarring tonal shifts, departures from the source material, and the missteps of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, they may find themselves pondering the same question: Is this necessary?

The Sympathizer: A Flawed Adaptation That Misses the Mark - 1312318411

( Credit to: Ign )

Told in flashback, The Sympathizer revolves around an unnamed double agent, known as ‘The Captain,’ brilliantly portrayed by Hoa Xuande. While Xuande exudes the wit and charisma expected from a spy, the series suffers from a lack of cohesion and uneven pacing. The different directors involved in the project contribute to this inconsistency, with Park Chan-wook’s satirical approach in the first three episodes feeling disconnected from the rest of the series. It isn’t until Marc Munden takes the helm in the final episodes that a balance is struck between grim humor and the reality of the Vietnamese refugee experience.

Park’s attention to detail is commendable, but his sardonic direction overlooks the deep emotional layers of loss and trauma experienced by the characters. The vibrant backdrop of colors during a scene depicting Vietnamese soldiers fleeing an attack by the Viet Cong detracts from the human element of their despair. Only under Munden’s direction does the series finally give a face to the lingering aftermath of the war, allowing viewers to empathize with the characters’ experiences.

Creative Liberties and Casting Choices

While the series remains faithful to the novel, some creative liberties are taken to condense the story into seven episodes. Tasking Robert Downey Jr. with playing amalgams of minor white characters from the book makes thematic sense. However, changes involving Asian characters feel out of place. The decision to shift certain aspects of the story from the character Bon to The Captain diminishes Bon’s role as a symbol of the damage caused by history. Additionally, a casting tweak in The Hamlet subplot undermines the series’ commentary on Hollywood’s view of Asian actors as interchangeable.

Disappointing Performance by Robert Downey Jr.

Regrettably, Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal in The Sympathizer falls flat. Park’s original vision of Downey playing various white characters, representing the problems faced by the Vietnamese people, loses its impact as Downey leans into exaggerated and offensive stereotypes. His portrayal of Dr. Avery Wright Hammer, with exaggerated effeminate mannerisms, is uncomfortable and distracting. This portrayal detracts from the series’ overall message.

A Superficial Approach

While The Sympathizer attempts to tackle the complex themes of dual identity and the Vietnamese refugee experience, it falls short in delivering a cohesive and thoughtful story. The series focuses more on aesthetics and dark humor rather than delving into the deep emotional impact of the characters’ experiences. It fails to fully explore the tragic events and aftermath of the Fall of Saigon, leaving the Vietnamese characters feeling empty and underserved.


The Sympathizer had the potential to be a successful limited series, with its prominent Asian filmmaker co-showrunner and talented cast of Vietnamese descent. However, it ultimately misses the mark by lacking cohesion, depth, and a true understanding of the source material’s themes. While Hoa Xuande and Fred Nguyen Khan deliver standout performances, The Sympathizer fails to fully capture the complexity and emotional resonance of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel.

What do you think?

Written by Reddit Manga

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