Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half a Yellow Sun in Novel and Film

I read Adiche’s Half a Yellow Sun (and watched the 2014 film version) for my Adaptation studies breadth list. Consequently, my notes are primarily oriented toward form / medium.

Novel

As I read Half a Yellow Sun, I was struck not only by the beauty of Adiche’s descriptions (particularly in terms of setting), but also by periodic, but brief, flashes of deja vu. It didn’t take me long to realize what the novel was so reminiscent of, particularly because I began to notice a pattern in my deja vu: it usually happened when the narration happened from Richard Churchill’s close, third person point of view (or when the focus was Richard). He reminded me, intensely, of the impotent British / European colonizer in texts like E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness–particularly as he styles himself a writer throughout the text.

My favorite part of the book is when Richard finally stops trying to write the book, and Ugwu actually does write. (By extension, the thing that frustrated me most about the film was the fact that Ugwu’s perspective was minimized and his growth and motivation are entirely elided. The only hint we get about this CRITICAL reassignation of the authorial role is one line in the epigraph segment right before the credits, when we learn “Ugwu is now a writer”).

So much of the novel is told from Ugwu’s perspective that I think, even though it is a retelling of the middle-class experience during the Biafran war, the book itself becomes more revolutionary. I know I’m not quite articulating this well, but I’m thinking of the pattern of writing and culture described in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. If Odenigbo is the native intellectual who begins the post-colonial renaissance of “native” culture, Ugwu’s postwar writing provides the promise that new culture can actually “take-off” in distinction from early, sort of proto-cultural forms that are primarily reaction to colonial rule, attempts to revivify old cultural forms, and etc.

Finally, I am interested in Adiche’s use of close, third person narration, nonlinear timeline, and multiple narrators to tell the story. As a reader, I suspected that these techniques allowed Adiche to, if not encapsulate, at least suggest the trauma, PTSD, and dissociation of Nigerian / Biafran experience in the 1960s and 70s .

Film

I’m not sure how I feel about the film version. I liked the way in which the visual medium allowed a real temporalization of the story; the 60s/70s clothing, cars, and furniture really grounded the story in reality for me. The use of High Life music and the fact that the film was actually shot on location in Nigeria were also things I really liked about the form.

Thinking back to Leitch’s article “Adaptation, the Genre,” the film’s seems to substitute the historic newsreels and superimposed map outlines depicting the protagonists’ travels for historically themed intertitles in a way. These segments break up the film and resituate it in a historical reality, gesturing to the events the film depicts rather than the novel.

The film meets all of the criteria that Leitch suggests allow viewers to identify the film as an adaptation even if they haven’t read the book. Problematically, however, the film relies too much on viewers’ prior knowledge of the book. I don’t think the plot would have been very intelligible to me if I hadn’t read the novel immediately before watching the film. In fact, the film version of the plot is so condensed that we don’t really get a good sense of character or motivation for any of Adiche’s wonderfully realized characters. Richard isn’t impotent. The sisters are friends for almost all of the film. Olanna’s choice to raise Baby as her own is so altered that it isn’t really a powerful decision anymore. And the whole Ugwu kerfuffle (don’t get me started again; I could rant and rant about that alteration).

(I’m not one of those readers who automatically hates and disparages film adaptations. In fact, I like adaptations such as Danny DeVito’s Matlida and Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride as much as if not more than the book versions. This film adaptation, though, felt too short. Probably because the novel reads a lot like an epic. It is a sweeping saga, and the film just isn’t long enough to capture that feeling.)

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