Lara Bourdin

Review | Biafra Revisited

Even if blander than the book, 'Half of a Yellow Sun' movie is a gripping tale of sisterhood and war.

Since its publication in 2007, Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun has emerged as one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed works of contemporary African literature. Set in Nigeria in the decade starting at independence (in 1960) and including the Biafran war (1967-1970), the novel offers a sweeping portrayal of the ravages the war wrought on families and friendships, humans and institutions, villages and the newborn state.

The unearthing of buried truths in the novel caused turmoil in Nigeria

The book was awarded the Orange Prize for African Literature in 2007 and its relevance has only increased since. Half of a Yellow Sun stands as a vital source of insight into the complex factors that bred war in the 1960s and that are stoking tensions anew today. The novel’s unearthing of buried truths about ‘Biafra’, such as the blockade by the central government against the seceding region, which caused mass starvation, pogroms of the regional ethnic Igbo group, and foreign arms deliveries under the guise of aid, caused public turmoil in Nigeria at the time of publication and the debate in the country still rages on.

Questions unanswered

In the past few years, Adichie herself has gained momentum internationally not only as an author but also as a speaker on such issues as the representation of Africa in global media, feminism, and most recently, the Chibok kidnappings. It was only a matter of time before her standout novel took on a new life of its own: the rights were signed in 2012, and the movie is presently making its rounds in theatres across the globe.

Fans of the novel heading to see Half of a Yellow Sun this fall would be wise to bring with them a strong dose of page-to-screen weariness. For while it’s a well-known adage that a few reels of celluloid can hardly ever be worth a novel’s thousands of words, this film unfortunately falls short of translating, and even less of re-texturizing, its source material. Even with an impeccable cast (including such big names as Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the leading roles) delivering irreproachable performances and director Biyi Bandele bringing plenty of pathos and poignancy to many of the novel’s more memorable scenes, the final result leaves the viewer underwhelmed. Heartstrings are pulled, but too many important questions remain unanswered.

The film pulls at heartstrings but is significantly blander than the book

There is no doubt that Adichie’s novel presents some challenges for the shift from paper to screen. First are its three narrators: the young Ugwu (John Boyega), a village boy who is hired as a houseboy for Odenigbo (Ejiofor), an eccentric mathematician at the regional University of Nsukka; Olanna (Newton), a stunningly beautiful and brilliant sociologist from a moneyed Igbo family who moves to Nsukka to be with Odenigbo; and Richard (Joseph Mawle), the bashful Englishman who is enamoured with all things Nigerian, not least Olanna’s sharp-tongued sister Kainene (Anika Noni Rose). Second is its complex narrative structure. The story leaps backwards and forwards in time from the early 1960s, where we meet our four characters and learn to situate them in the complex melting pot of post-independence Nigerian society; to the first murmurs of the Biafran war in 1966, where we watch the worlds of each character begin to shake. It then moves back again to the early 60s; and finally, into the heart of the conflict of 1967-70, where relationships are torn apart and sewn back together in new, painful, beautiful and terrible ways.

The result is an intricately plaited narrative that cuts across and exposes the seams of gender, class, ethnicity that gave post-independence Nigerian society its fragile texture.

A linear tale of sisterhood

On paper, Biyi Bandele was just the man for the part of director: the Nigerian novelist and playwright has himself worked up an impressive CV as a teller of stories, with his stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart the standout entry. But he has played it quite safe with his first foray into film. His strategy for the adaptation is to replace Adichie’s three-part narrative voice by that of its female protagonist, Olanna (Thandie Newton). The narrative of criss-crossing relationships is accordingly anchored in a single one: that of Olanna and her sister, Kainene (Anika Noni Rose).

Moreover, instead of experimenting with flash-forwards and flashbacks, Bandele has chosen to even out the novel’s erratic narrative structure into a neat chronological progression. Unfortunately, its proportions are somewhat stunted. The fascinating character development that unfolds through the first quarter of the novel is condensed into a fifteen minute sequence, the years of war are choppily hastened and much of the narrative’s conclusion is regrettably expedited through a sequence of closing epigraphs.

With a focus on resilience and sisterhood of women it is still a visually appealing tale of love and war

The result is a moving but frustratingly linear film about the resilience of women and the power of sisterhood in a time of war. This interpretation could certainly have made for a compelling picture, if it weren’t for the fact that the relationship between the two sisters was bizarrely changed. The stark contrasts, the differences of opinion, and the layers of mutual jealousy, admiration, love and hate that animate the relationship between the sisters are diluted to render them into a comfortingly complementary pair.

Most prominently, Bandele has scrapped the contrast between Olanna’s astonishing beauty (called ‘illogical’ in the book) and Kainene’s more human imperfection: Newton and Noni Rose are both resplendent in their respective roles. Presumably made in the interest of giving the film a dazzling twosome of female protagonists, this authorial choice robs the tension between the two sisters of its pettiest and yet most potent source. It consequently saps it of its dramatic force.

Blubbering ‘yes sah’s

Even as the two leading ladies take on new dimensions, the other characters lose out. The men in particular are considerably changed. Viewers are invited to adopt Kainene’s sardonic view of the “revolutionary” Odenigbo, as the character whom Adichie had cast as the articulate mouthpiece of anti-colonial thought and Biafra nationalism becomes an idealist with more flaws than redeeming qualities.

This is in part due to the brisk handling of the dinner party scenes at Odenigbo’s house. Bringing together a cast of Nsukka intellectuals for lively discussions on all matters post-independence politics and society, these scenes are essential to the contextual stage-setting in the first third of Adichie’s novel and particularly crucial to Odenigbo’s character development. Bandele’s cuts  make it difficult to understand Odenigbo’s revolutionary ideals and to situate them against other aspects of his personality: his egocentrism, his empathy, his love for his country and his family. His drunken romp with a village girl (orchestrated by his mother) redirects the viewer’s sympathy all the more to Olanna. Perhaps to save Odenigbo from total disgrace, Bandele has left out his descent into alcoholism and apathy: the result, however, is the loss of one of the sub-plots that precisely gives dimension to the female characters’ fortitude in the closing scenes of the film.

But it is undeniably Ugwu’s portrayal that disappoints most, as the character who is supposed to act as Odenigbo’s mirror image is reduced to a young man of few lines, the majority of which are blubbering ‘yes sah’s. His transfiguration from illiterate houseboy to articulate writer of the war is awkwardly rendered in the film through the sudden and unexplained appearance of glasses on his nose at the onset of the war scenes. With Ugwu’s experience as a child soldier diluted into a few passing allusions, viewers are deprived of an essential perspective on the war.

The unexplained conflict

The war itself is unevenly portrayed. While some of the film’s strongest scenes are those that place the protagonists at the heart of the conflict (the scene at the airport, where Richard witnesses the brutal and indiscriminate shooting of Igbos; the wedding scene, where a grenade explodes as Olanna and Odenigbo are enjoying their bittersweet first dance as a married couple), the conflict itself remains opaque to viewers unversed in Nigerian history.

Context is offered through Bandele’s use of archival BBC footage, which echoes Adichie’s judicious re-creation of radio broadcasts in the novel. This material is highly compelling in itself, especially as it brings to the fore the discrepancy between the way the war was represented to the West and the way it was lived on the ground. However, flitting in and out of the film as it does without anchoring in the characters’ dialogue, it comes across as a somewhat expedient way of conveying the history lessons that should inform our understanding of the psychological and emotional drama playing out between the characters.

Crucially, the ethnic tensions that are part of the conflict are neither explored nor explained: although we are clearly informed that our protagonists are Igbo, I don’t think the word ‘Hausa’ (who composed the majority of the forces opposing the Igbo secessionists) was pronounced more than once, and the novel’s principal Hausa figure, Mohamed (Olanna’s former lover) is cut from the story in turn.

Bandele’s decision to dramatically condense the Nsukka dinner party scenes is also significant in this regard. The themes of colonialism, pan-Africanism and ethnic identity, so essential to our understanding of the conflict, are half-heartedly raised, and then swiftly closed.

Easily digestible, significantly blander

There are a number of redeeming elements in the film. The luminosity of Adichie’s writing comes through in the soft clarity of the cinematography and in the warmth of the colours that serve as a backdrop for most of the scenes. The opening shots of an independence-day Lagos, which segue from dark streets enlivened by waving flags to the glitzy soirées where Kainene and Olanna go to dazzle, are remarkably effective in simultaneously conveying the buoyancy of hope and the utter fragility of the realities that ground it. Also particularly successful are the bedroom scenes, as Ejiofor and Newton’s chemistry brings loads of unctuousness and plenty of sizzle to the screen. And although it goes against Adichie’s original script, the symbiotic sisterly relationship that Newton and Noni Rose manage to conjure is heart-warmingly convincing. But with the complexity of their characters left unexplored and their circumstances insufficiently contextualized, what remains is a visually appealing epic tale of love and war, ironed out to be easily digestible, if also significantly blander.

This is an updated and edited version of an article that was originally written and published on ZAM’s Facebook page following the international premiere of Half of a Yellow Sun at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013.

Lara Bourdin is ZAM Chronicle’s arts editor

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