Stealing Characters

I recently watched "The Letter", a 1940 William Wyler movie starring Bette Davis.  I picked it up because the culture guide Terry Teachout, who blogs at About Last Night, has written the libretto to an opera based on it (or, rather, on the original Maugham story).

It's about murder, betrayal of ideals, and corruption in pre-war Malaya.  That "pre-war" is interesting.  This was filmed a little more than a year before Japanese forces conquered the entire country, besieged Singapore, and destroyed this entire society. So, no matter what long-term guilts or pains the characters expected to have, they were completely overcome by events.

I get story ideas from movies, more more so than from books.  This happens in several ways.  I always try to predict what will happen next, and if I'm completely wrong, my prediction can serve as the basis for a story.  And I'm often more interested in minor characters than the movie, with its limited airtime, can be.  In this case, it was the lawyer Howard Joyce's legal assistant Ong Chi Seng.  Ong is the one who presents Joyce with his occasion of sin, by offering him something he desperately needs.  It's played pretty straightforwardly in the movie.  Aside from a cute bit with Ong's tiny little car, he's just a device.

But he can be a device because he's linked into a complex society the ruling Brits do not have real access to.  Who is he?  Has he helped the lawyer before in this way?  Does he have motivations aside from money for doing it?  None of this is the point of the movie, and so none of these questions are answered.  He serves as the guide to a crucial confrontation in the Asian part of town, but again, solely as a device.  Fixers and liminal characters like Ong are interesting, and he could easily have been a major character, with the murder and trial just as background to his own activities.

I have not yet read the original story.  I'm curious to see what role he plays there.  If it is similarly minor, I can claim him, or a version of him, for myself.