With the single exception of To Kill A Mockingbird, I have never quite fancied any adaptation of a book I love, so I had my sneer in place as I settled down to watch Half Of A Yellow Sun. I frankly did not see how they could reproduce the perfection that is Chimamanda Adichie’s storytelling, where she poured her heart, soul and immeasurable talent into the book that has come to be her magnum opus. With the prose, the characters, the dialogue, the seamless transitions- the book flows like a perfect composition. Naturally, I was filled with equal parts excitement and dread when the movie was released, and both emotions turned out to be justified.
HOAYS, the movie, had all the generally despicable elements of an adaptation. It is basically a painfully over-diluted version of the book and the extremely grave issues highlighted within. The gaping absence of relevant bits of the political side of the story was probably by design, so as not to inflame any latent inter-ethnic grudges. The result is that anyone who watches the movie without having read the book will agree that they have seen a good movie; it may not exactly be Gone With The Wind, but it’s no dud. But for we who have read the original work, the movie leaves us unfulfilled and bereft.
Biyi Bandele focuses solely on the drama among four principal characters, Olanna, Odenigbo, Kainene and Richard, barely giving a passing glance to anyone else, save for Odenigbo’s mother, who is set up to provide the comic relief. Ugwu, with whom we were intimately acquainted in the novel, seems to spend the entire time shuffling from one end of the screen to the other, looking sullen. Okeoma is grossly misrepresented as a boisterous, jolly good fellow instead of the sensitive poet we were led to believe him to be, and the overall glossing-over of Odenigbo’s little Algonquin Table heavily detracts from the intellectual complexities and strong political opinions of its members, making them appear to be not more than a drinking group of fanciful lecturers. Even Odenigbo’s characteristic radicalism is largely muted, perhaps in a bid to de-polarize the political tone of the original story. The worst, for me, was the way Richard is used only to feed the entire melodrama, an erstwhile complex, needy character reduced to a mere cog in the wheel of a My-Sister-Slept-With-My-Lover trope. None of the insecurity that underlined this character is evident in the film. Mr. Bandele, however, makes good choices when providing the setting for the film, giving a believable portrayal of the sixties in Nigeria. The news clips scattered all through the movie are well-timed and are, for me, the best bits of the movie.
Sparkling performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anika Noni Rose and Onyeka Onwenu are the salvaging factors of the film. Chiwetel is magnificent as Odenigbo, and is reason enough to sit through this movie. His portrayal of a middle-class intellectual Nigerian couldn’t be more spot-on. He has excellent chemistry with Thandie Newton as Olanna, who holds up her end of the acting bargain, and provides a wrenching, emotional performance. Ms. Newton, however, drops the ball with her atrocious Nigerian accent. It is amazing that these actors will go above and beyond the call of duty to master a French or Russian accent but have no qualms portraying a Nigerian while speaking English in what I can only assume is a Malawian accent. Every time she pronounced Kainene as ‘Kaininny”, something in me cramped very painfully. Anika Noni Rose shines as Kainene, the aloof, practical twin of Olanna. Her condescending manner (“This ‘Baby’ business is getting tiresome.”), crisp English accent and emotionless gaze are refreshingly vivid and familiar in a movie where many characters are a mere shadow of who they are in the book. Onyeka Onwenu finds herself in the familiar Nollywood role of the provincial malicious mother-in-law, so it’s no surprise that she does it justice.
The overall effect is a mixed bag of solid performances against an under-achieving script. The decision to approach the movie from a different angle from the book robs it of the It Factor that engulfs Chimamanda Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun, thus stripping it down from its multi-layered, rich historical masterpiece status to a weepy one-dimensional chick-flick about love and loss.
Amanda is a Bluestocking who lives for laughter, music and rainy days.