Great Literature and the Screen

Film adaption of an epic novel is a fine and difficult art; one that the creators of "Half of a Yellow Sun" did not pull off.

A still from 'Half of a Yellow Sun.'

Talented novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Biyi Bandele’s adaption of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” is a valiant attempt at making visible not only Adichie’s epic but heart-wrenching story of Nigeria’s Biafran War. Yet despite a well-rounded and talented cast and genius source material, the film lacks a center—and ultimately a heart.

One of the strengths of Adichie’s bestselling novel is that the story is told from the perspective of three different characters: Olanna, the London-educated daughter of a nouveau-riche businessman and the “illogically pretty” lover of Odenigbo, a university professor of mathematics and a vocal armchair revolutionary; Richard, a white Englishman and struggling writer, whose travels have brought him to Igboland where he is quickly infatuated with Olanna’s headstrong twin sister Kainene; and Ugwu, the teenage houseboy who works for Odenigbo.

Bandele (this is his debut as a film director) had previously adapted Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece “Things Fall Apart” for the stage, so must be highly attuned to the challenges in bringing great literature to performative life. During the Q&A following the world premiere of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Bandele stated he decided to focus on the relationship between twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose)—rather than attempt to follow the stories of the many rich characters who texture Adichie’s novel.

However, his decision most starkly marginalizes the rich and dynamic stories of Adichie’s novel, most particularly those of Ugwu (John Boyega) and Richard (Joseph Mawle), who in the literary text along with Olanna anchor and offer diverse breadth to the complex tale of war, family, romantic love, voice, and the paradoxes of postcolonial life in newly independent Nigeria. Entirely left out is Ugwu’s violent yet endearing coming-of-age-story and Richard’s down-spiraling struggle as a writer, lover, and peripheral British-Biafran, is suggested but not centered.

Purist book-to-film arguments aside, not only will fans and students of the novel miss these characterizations, but in the absence of these stories of masculinities in struggle, much of Olanna and Kainene’s motivations and responses are simplified as well. For example, with Ugwu as muted houseboy, Olanna’s transformation from upper-class socialite to war-traumatized yet fortified mother-wife is flattened without the mirror of Ugwu’s movement from subaltern domestic servant to politicized writer of the Biafran story. And without Richard’s precious and unfinished book manuscript to burn, Kainene’s tough-love forgiveness of his infidelity exists in a vacuum. Indeed, it is these very crucial transformations of subjectivity that are carelessly tossed outside the frame of the film (although some appear in the film’s awkwardly summarized epigraph “Ugwu is now a writer”).

Largely absent too is Odenigbo’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) descent into silence and alcoholism as he is unable to reconcile the arbitrary violence and corruption of war and his well-noted revolutionary bravado. Thus, Kainene’s and Olanna’s everyday activism in the refugee camp cannot serve as an ironic contrast to Odenigbo’s disappointing apathy. Strangely, Bandele instead decides to redeem Odenigbo’s mother (Onyeka Onwenu) who after proclaiming her potential daughter-in-law, Olanna, a witch, later begs the young woman she so fervently disapproves of to marry her son. While Adichie’s Mama dies, stubborn, prejudiced, manipulative, and yet, loved all the same.

It must also be said that if Bandele chose to eliminate the complexity of “supporting” characters in order to focus on Olanna and Kainene’s complex relationship as sisters—here too he undersells. A central undercurrent to the twin’s ongoing tension is that Olanna is seen as the beautiful one, and Kainene is often made to feel—even by their parents—overlooked and unattractive. Indeed, living in the shadow of her gorgeous and unabashedly non-identical twin has hardened her heart, and as such, she seeks to balance things through her feministic business acumen and sarcastic tongue. Yet again, Bandele merely hints at these issues, leaving Rose’s Kainene condescending and bitchy for no apparent reason outside of seemingly classist sense of entitlement. While Newton and Rose have a strong chemistry in their play as sisters, the intensity of their twin bond is not fully explored in the film. This is made especially clear when the hustle-wise Kainene disappears and Olanna’s poignant worry and grief is hardly palatable in Newton’s performance.

Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun’s strengths lie in the on-location cinematography, the costumes, the economic use of archival footage, and the music. Especially it is the use of the era’s pro-Biafra songs and Nigerian highlife tunes, which create a vibrancy in the film that is not always present in the script.

Film adaption from an epic novel is a fine and difficult art; one that Bandele despite his previous successes does not master here. The demand of telling such a complex story appears overwhelming. While Bandele does a fine job drawing forth much-needed humor in what could have easily been a macabre envisioning of a brutal civil war, and in this regard, Onyeka Onwenu’s Mama steals the show and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the passionate and charismatic professor Odenigbo shines. On the other hand, the tragic continuance of the war seems rushed. While the bomb-laced wedding scene is the film’s most powerful, the only clue that years of violence, starvation, and displacement continue to pass and wear down the bodies and spirits of the characters is Baby’s move from infant to toddler in a one beat. In this regard, Bandele and his editor Chris Gill could have exploited a myriad of cinematic motifs to signify how many years the war continued to plod on.

Like many in the TIFF packed auditorium at the premiere screening, I greatly anticipated the film adaption of a book by admittedly one of the most exciting and dynamic African young writers. Consequently, I read the audience’s standing ovation after the screening more as a heart-felt recognition of a largely Pan-African effort to tell an often-silenced history. (On a more superficial side-note it must be said the Black star-power in the house gave quite a thrill with the director, the majority of the very good-looking cast present, along with the always lovely Adichie, sitting amongst the well-heeled Toronto crowd of multiple Diasporas.)

Ultimately, however, Bandele’s film reflects a cliff-note-style adaption of the novel, in that much of the narrative’s nuance, like the enigmatic Kainene, remains missing.

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