A ‘film of the book’ doesn’t have to faithfully reproduce what’s between the pages, so does HALF OF A YELLOW SUN give a fresh perspective on the nightmare of the Nigerian civil war?
Director Biyi Bandele’s first feature HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is an ambitious attempt to dramatise the 2007 Orange Prize-winning novel by Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, which explores the complexities of several key relationships played out before and during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War in the late 1960s. The obvious difficulty with adapting a book as complex (and as well-loved) as Half Of A Yellow Sun is what to leave in and what to ditch. Biyi Bandele’s screenplay unfortunately cuts away too much detail and reframes the story into a chronological narrative concerning the loves of two women rather than adopting Adiche’s much richer technique of weaving Nigerian history and politics into the developing relationships between three people – a professional Nigerian woman, an English academic and a 13-year-old village boy. As a result, it’s difficult to identify with the people on screen, to understand their motivations, or how they fit into the national picture, even why we should care about them.
The opening scenes of HALF OF A YELLOW SUN show much promise. As the technical credits roll the screen fills with an enormous glitter ball spinning slowly in muted lighting, until a neat map of the African continent emerges, with Nigeria highlighted on the west coast. The image of the glitter ball dissolves into a packed social event that introduces the period, the late 1960s, and the main characters: twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), the English-educated daughters of one of Nigeria’s elite families, the sort who invite government ministers round for dinner. We soon meet the men who become the women’s love-interests, and this is where the story starts to fall apart. We never quite know what the attraction is between Olanna and her ‘revolutionary’ lover Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), or between Richard (Joseph Mawle) and Kainene; we just don’t have enough information.
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN principally follows Olanna as her life takes an alarming turn, from a life of privilege to the life of a refugee. Nigeria suffers political conflict between the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani people, which leads to two military coups, the birth of the Republic of Biafra and the subsequent three-year civil war. Having forsworn the inventive structure of the book, Bandele doesn’t allow the main characters to develop on screen. Some plot points come out of the blue and don’t fit the narrative, such as when Odenigbo’s viciously prejudiced Mama suddenly embraces Olanna as ‘my daughter’ after she had spent the previous few years cooking up ways of prising the couple apart.
The relationship of the characters to Nigeria’s wider political struggles is unconvincing, especially the lack of Richard’s motivations: he is an English academic obsessed with Igbo culture, which allows for deeper understanding about colonialism. Instead he appears only to be captured by Kainene’s beauty, rather than smitten by Nigeria itself. Contemporary newsreel clips record Biafra’s brief, violent life, but, while interesting as visual history, they do little to illuminate the profound life-journeys that the two couples take. Apart from a couple of tense departures under fire, and a few mentions of food shortages, we don’t find out how devastating the war was for much of Nigeria; this is not the case in Adiche’s hands. The three strands of the narrative need to be given equal weight in order to make sense of the characters, what they do, what happens to them. It’s a real shame to have cast out this element of the book.
Literary adaptations are often fraught with disappointment for fans of the written form. This adaptation of HALF OF A YELLOW SUN focuses on domestic drama at the expense of the more interesting political and historical context in which they live. While its ambition and attention to period detail are admirable, the film lacks the narrative or emotional clout to pull it along. Disappointingly, it’s a melodrama with little substance.
Anthony Davis (@theagentapsley) writes more about the film here, http://unofficialcambridgefilmfestival.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/a-night-in-tunisia.html