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From Book To Film: A Look At Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 'Half Of A Yellow Sun'

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by Natasha Greeves
June 19, 2012 4:17 PM
5 Comments
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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun is not a quick read at 541 pages, but if you are inclined to read it, you will be justly rewarded.  

The film is forthcoming, and as a reader of Shadow and Act, you likely know about the bit of controversy regarding the casting of Thandie Newton in a central role; but more on that later.  

At this time, I imagine filming has wrapped or is due to wrap shortly, especially since Chiwetel  Ejiofor is due to start filming Steve McQueens 12 Years a Slave this summer.  So we can likely expect to see a some still images, clips, and even a trailer soon enough; but until then, let us examine what’s on the page.  

I will avoid giving away major plot points, and focus instead on provide some insight into the characters, their relationships, and the actors chosen to play them.

The novel takes place between the 1960’s and early 1970 in Nigeria. The story jumps between time periods throughout the novel, dropping morsels of information and back story as we go along.  Whether the film will do this, or follow a more linear plot format, we will know in time.

While we have five central characters - Ugwu (to be played by John Boyega), Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Olanna (Thandie Newton), Richard (Joseph Mawle), and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) - the novel criss-crosses through their lives, exposing the reader to everyone, from political leaders, to the lives of poor villagers, as they live through a war.  

At the center of the story is the Nigerian-Biafran War, a civil war in Nigeria that occurred from July 6, 1967 to January 15, 1970.  

The war is a result of cultural and political tension between the ethnic groups of Nigeria; specifically the Hausa and Igbo people, when the Igbo attempted to secede and form their own nation, The Republic of Biafra. The war, with its many twists and turns like the music in a musical, moves the story along. But while the war is central to the story, the book is really about the personal stories of the characters, across class lines, with loyalty and betrayal being strong themes throughout.

Ugwu, a village boy, is brought to the University town of Nsukka by his Aunty, to work for Odenigbo, a University Professor.  Ugwu is described at the start of the novel as probably Thirteen and ages throughout.  He comes to Nsukka never having seen running water, but shows an inquisitive nature, and Odenigbo insists he continue to be educated.  Ugwu’s character truly grows throughout, providing both comic and dramatic moments.  John Boyega has been cast as Ugwu.  The young Mr. Boyega showed great promise in Attack the Block and interest in him Stateside has been strong; this could be a key role in helping to build on his career.

For those who asked to see Chiwetel Ejiofor (a Shadow and Act favorite) in more leading roles, you will be happy he has been cast as Odenigbo, the University Professor who embraces “radical ideas.”  As described in the novel:

"His complexion was very dark, like old bark, and the hair that covered his chest and legs was a lustrous, darker shade”  

“Olanna had stared at him, at the arch of his eyebrows behind the glasses, the thickness of his body, already thinking of the least hurtful way to untangle herself from Mohammed.  Perhaps she would have known that Odenigbo was different, even if he had not spoken; his haircut alone said it, standing up in a high halo.”  

Chiwetel is not the first actor I thought of based on the physical description, but his acting talent is undeniable, and it will be interesting to see him inhabit this role.  

Thandie Newton is casting in the role of Olanna, daughter of a wealthy Nigerian Chief as well as Odenigbo’s (Chiwetel's) lover, who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town. She is the central female character in the story; an Igbo woman described as follows:

“The lush color of rain-drenched earth... eyes... large and slanted... curvy, fleshy body... hair was long; each of the braids that hung down to her neck ended in a soft  fuzz... illogically pretty...”  

While Newton certainly has "pretty" down, I don’t think she fits any of the character's other descriptions.  I think there were other actresses better suited for the role.  I won’t say more about the controversy surrounding her casting, and instead let S&A readers share their opinions in the comments section.

In addition to the physical description, I would say this is a character who is desperate for those she encounters, to look beyond her surface.

Kainene, who will be played by Anika Noni Rose, is Olanna’s twin sister.  While they are twins, these two women couldn’t be more different.  Kainene is a take charge kind of woman who is the pride of her father, unlike her twin sister Olanna (Newton). Running a substantial part of her father's business, she's described as possessing a...

 “...melancholy mystique... Kainene is not just like a son, she is like two... very thin and very tall... almost androgynous... skin was the color of Belgian chocolate... He did not think Kainene was some wealthy Nigerian’s daughter because she had none of the cultivated demureness... In fact, she was not pretty at all.” 

Does this sound like Anika Noni Rose?

Kainene is the object of Richard's infatuation. Richard is played by Joseph Mawle - a young, shy British writer who has come to Nigeria to study the arts.  He is described as a pretty boy” and he provides an outsider perspective on the events. His relationship with Kainene takes a turn after one careless, drunken night.

Earlier S&A reported that the role of Richard was to be played by Dominic Cooper, but IMDB now has the role credited to Joseph Mawle.  Mawle is better known to us as Benjen Stark from the first Season of Game of Thrones, and can next be seen in the soon-to-be released Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as Thomas Lincoln.  

While Mr. Cooper is still cast in the film, according to IMDB, what role he will play is unclear.

Based on descriptions provided in the book, I would say some of the key roles in the film are a bit miscast.  While an argument could be made for casting strong actors, I don’t think totally ignoring a character's physical descriptions is smart casting either, after all “seeing is believing.”

I guess we have to trust that first time film director Biyi Bandele - who also adapted the book to screenplay - knows what he is doing. He's an experienced novelist and playwright who regular Shadow and Act readers may remember is working with Steve McQueen to bring the announced Fela biopic to the big screen.  If you haven’t already, check out THIS previous S&A post and get to know Biyi Bandele.

I expect we will see the film make the major festival rounds in 2013/2014!  If justice is done to Ms. Adichie’s enthralling novel, we could very well have an Oscar contender on our hands for 2014/2015.  And given that 12 Years A Slave could also be on the same release track, likely to bow in 2013, we could have two Oscar contenders on our hands with Chiwetel Ejifior in starring roles.  

Half of a Yellow Sun is a beautifully written revelation of how life can unravel when the political landscape changes. The characters are the best thing about the book as the plot moves a bit slowly; but the characters are so fascinatingly and completely drawn that there's nary a dull moment. Each character could be the center of their own novel.

There is plenty of build-up, as the reader is given the opportunity to really get to know and care about the characters and the place they inhabit, before the real tragedy kicks in.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am hopeful and excited for this film adaptation.

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5 Comments

  • sepia830 | August 16, 2012 12:28 AMReply

    Wow I can't believe the uproar over Thandie Newton playing Olanna. So she doesn't fit the mold of the character in the book...this is about the movie folks and movies are about money. In filmmaking this kind of thing happens all the time. If you're so hung up on the cast not looking like the book described just stay home and sulk about it. I am going to just for the pleasure of seeing the story come to life on screen. I have no doubt that both Thandie and Anika will give outstanding performances. I have come to expect nothing less from them.

  • joe | June 21, 2012 10:02 PMReply

    Read the book, definitely did not see Thandie Newton or Anika Rose in these roles.

  • Geneva Girl | June 20, 2012 7:47 AMReply

    Well, if Anika Noni Rose has to ugly up for the role expect a Best Supporting Actress nod.

  • the black police | June 20, 2012 8:36 AM

    I dont forsee them uglying her up. If they wanted to stick to the book, they would have chosen an ugly girl I think. But you never know...

  • NinaG | June 19, 2012 10:35 PMReply

    just realized another problem with Thandie playing Olanna...I won't be able to pretend I'm her in any sex scenes w/ Odenigbo

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