Adapting Rizal for the TikTok generation

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The insertion of a Gen Z character in Jose Rizal’s novels points out its enduring relevance, centuries later. Photo from GMANETWORK/YOUTUBE

Jose Rizal is not just our national hero but our national homework. Such is the consequence of the Rizal Law, passed in 1956 to instill long-lost nationalism in Filipino youth. Generations of high school and college students have studied Rizal’s life and novels, labored over extensive book reports, wrote out character names on large manila paper, and dramatized Sisa’s “Crispin! Basilio!” countlessly in the classroom, all in the name of nationalism.

Klay (Barbie Forteza), the feisty nursing student at the center of historical portal fantasy drama “Maria Clara at Ibarra,” is no different. In fact, she was written precisely to personify the usual Filipino student taking these classes: present due to obligation, asleep at her desk because she was busy working the night before, eager to graduate and work overseas to provide for her family. We need not look further than Klay to assess the effectiveness of the Rizal Law — nationalism, like other values, can indeed be taught, but perhaps our neoliberal education system is not the best avenue.

“Maria Clara at Ibarra” takes “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” out of the classroom, breathing new life into otherwise required work. The show’s avid viewership is potent proof of the format’s appeal. It has not only achieved good ratings but also triggered Filipino fan culture’s unique mechanisms: nightly trending hashtags, TikTok supercuts of beloved pairings, and projects organized by its fan clubs. Rizal’s characters, born in the 19th century, have joined the ranks of modern Philippine love teams.

20-year-old Joanna Fajela runs the official Twitter fan page for Fidel (a character who doesn’t exist in the book, played by David Licauco) and Klay’s pairing, lovingly nicknamed FiLay. They are currently organizing a thanksgiving event for FiLay fans, where both Forteza and Licauco will be in attendance. “My co-workers and I are huge fans of the show, especially [of] FiLay,” Fajela said. “Last night’s episode would be our topic first thing in the morning, and if one of us misses an episode, we will watch it together during our break time.”

Fajela added that she started the fan page to lead FiLay Twitter parties — online gatherings where all attendees tweet about the same topic using the same hashtag. “We needed to reach higher engagement for our tag lines to trend.”

But while the kilig is what draws viewers in, it’s not what makes them stay. These characters are not strangers to us after all, and “Maria Clara at Ibarra” is not the first onscreen adaptation of “Noli” and “El Fili.” In particular, Maria Clara (played by Julie Ann San Jose in the show) has become a cultural shorthand for a timid, modest Filipino woman — something that the show’s head writer Suzette Doctolero argues as inaccurate.

“Kung babasahin mo yung libro, hindi naman totoo na mahina si Maria Clara,” Doctolero said in a podcast interview. “Tinweak namin nang onti [yung character niya] at pinatapang pa namin nang onti.”

This is bolstered by Maria Clara’s interactions with headstrong Klay. Daniela Kuizon, a senior high school student from Davao, said Klay embodies Filipino Gen Z in both manner and mindset. “Seeing her interact with the characters from ‘Noli,’ nakikita mo yung direct comparison… Nadadala ni Klay yung mga progressive views niya sa buhay, at bumabangga [‘yon] sa traditional mindset noon.”

Klay is the lifeline of the show in this way: she comes to befriend the characters of “Noli,” and since viewers see themselves in Klay, it feels they have developed this intimacy with them too — at least to a greater extent than if they just read the book for school. More importantly, Klay is the audience’s mouthpiece. Maria Clara as a cultural trope has been deemed outdated by most Gen Z, along with the novel in which she originated. Klay encourages Maria Clara to think for herself and stand up for what she believes in, essentially saying what the readers wish to say to a character whose modesty precedes her identity.

This is not to say “Maria Clara at Ibarra” is unfaithful to “Noli” and “El Fili,” or that the creators took Rizal’s characters and ran with it. Kuizon lauded how the well-researched show captures the different nuances that prove how much thought went into its production. This is a deliberate effort from the showrunners to ensure that, in the words of head writer Doctolero, “hindi magagalit si Rizal sa’min.” The writing goes through multiple rounds of review, and the production team is under the guidance of two historians: Ramon “Bomen” Guillermo, who they consult for scripting, and Gonzalo Campoamor II, who looks over the authenticity of the production and costumes.

The audience also plays an active, integral role in further enriching the show. Historians have both praised the show and expanded its themes: for instance, the history professor Michael “Xiao” Chua wrote about the show’s emancipation of the characters, while historian Kristoffer Pasion shed light on the decades-long mischaracterization of Sisa. Fajela, who runs the FiLay fan page, said she already found the show enjoyable as a casual viewer, but “it was when I created [the fan] account that I truly appreciated the beauty of the show. Fellow fans have helped me see the bigger picture in every scene, and I learn not just from the episode but also from fans.”

“The show motivated me to do extensive research to help me understand the context [of the show] better. I even purchased a copy of ‘Noli’ so I can reread it any time,” Fajela added. “My high school self wouldn't imagine!”

History professor and Palanca-winning writer Jose Victor Torres — who, funnily enough, shares his name with Klay’s professor played by Lou Veloso — confirmed the rising interest in reading and rereading Rizal’s novels among young and old viewers. He also argued that the show as an artistic interpretation of the books has permission to exercise creative liberty, especially in its addition of Klay and Fidel. “Huwag lang sana sila madismaya na wala si Klay sa novel. That’s my only worry. Then again it seems [the book] is still appreciated [by the audience], so I don’t think it’s a big deal if they discover the characters they are fond of are not actually in the book.”

While a renewed interest in Philippine literature is a commendable achievement, perhaps we shouldn’t deem increased readership as the show’s primary metric of success. Reading the books is not the end in itself — in the same way that the creators of “Maria Clara at Ibarra” want to direct our attention to Rizal’s work, Rizal wrote “Noli” and “El Fili” to direct the attention of his readers to the horrors of Spanish colonial rule.

“There’s always going to be different points of view and interpretations [of Rizal’s work]. But you should not lose the fact that Rizal wrote these for a reason: to awaken our society."

“There’s always going to be different points of view and interpretations [of Rizal’s work]. But you should not lose the fact that Rizal wrote these for a reason: to awaken our society,” Torres said. “[‘Noli Me Tangere’] was not just a love story, but a story of society. And the fact that a modern character was inserted into it tells us that [what happens in the book] still happens today.”

We see here, once again, the importance of Klay as the representative of Gen Z. She is someone who sees no future in her own country and no value in knowing its history. By way of what she goes through in the course of the show, the creators seem to instill in their young viewers the ever-relevant adage that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.

“Ang soap ang paraan mo ng pakikipag-dialogue sa iyong audience,” head writer Doctolero said. “Relevant pa rin [ang mga libro ni Rizal], nagbago lang ang mga kontrabida. May mga pumalit lang sa mga prayle… Kasama sa saysay natin ang hindi lang magbigay ng aliw kundi maging salamin para mag-reflect ang audience.”

“Maria Clara at Ibarra” also supports a truth that always seems to fall on deaf ears: Philippine media is capable of well-crafted, thought-provoking programming, especially with state support. “I hope ‘Maria Clara at Ibarra’ serves as an eye-opener not only for the Filipino audience, but sa government to invest further in films and TV series like this,” senior high school student Kuizon said.

“I hope it inspires more Filipino filmmakers and writers to bring the historical drama genre alive in the Philippines, kasi ang masasabi ko lang: I will be seated.”