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The filmic space and the adaptation of Nigerian literary genres

By Chukwuma Anyanwu
24 February 2019   |   4:21 am
Universally as well as culturally, literature has been known to regenerate itself. This is the way of oral literature as it metamorphoses into written and the written mode transforms into visual/plastic, which in turn ascends to performance art,...

Universally as well as culturally, literature has been known to regenerate itself. This is the way of oral literature as it metamorphoses into written and the written mode transforms into visual/plastic, which in turn ascends to performance art, or the reverse, as the muse directs the creator/narrator. As it is with literature in its primordial development, even so it is in its generic mode, Poems have been known to be adapted into drama-the Odyssey; Iliad; which in turn have been adapted into films. Novels have also been adapted into movies/films; indeed, novels seem to be the most easily accessible resource materials for films.

Examples are too numerous to mention. Take for instance the trilogy of Harold Robins: The Dream Merchants, The Carpet Baggers and The Inheritors or any works of James Hadley Chase, to cite a few instances. The Bible has an array of works into which its parts have been adapted, either in movies or comics. It is also true that plays or dramatic works of literature pass through adaptation to other media types. We have the example of virtually all the works of William Shakespeare to support our argument. Returning back home, we have the example of Nigeria’s first independent film, Wole Soyinka’s play, Kongi’s Harvest, is on record as the first film of independent Nigeria as it made its appearance as film in 1970. In some cases, we have written literature being enriched by visual literature as movies have been adapted into prose/novels.

The Great Attempt by Professor Hyginus Ekwuazi had similar experience as Kongi’s Harvest; but the experience was in reverse order because The Great Attempt was an original screen play, adapted into a novel by the screenwright. The film version was directed and produced by Chief Eddie Ugbomah under the same title. There are also the Star Trek novels which were adapted from the screen version. A lot of comic novels have equally given birth to animated films and films have given birth to numerous comics-Papa Ajasco, Alice in wonderland, Spear, Tom and Jerry, Spiderman and many others. It therefore, goes without saying that the Nigerian visual/filmic space is not only boundless and offers limitless opportunity for movie makers; it can only be limited by the creative ingenuity of the individual filmmakers/producers.

It is clear from the foregoing that the filmic space of Nollywood can be both enlarged and enriched through recourse to the equally rich and engaging literary genres if the appropriate steps are taken. It has been done before; it can still be done again. We will look at adaptation and all it stands for as well as why it has not been a favourite source of materials for Nigerian filmmakers, notwithstanding its enviable record in this direction.

The Oxford Dictionary Thesaurus & Wordpower Guide, says that “adaptation is the art or process of adapting, or fitting; or the state of being adapted or fitted; fitness; a written work (as a novel) that has been recast in a new form.” From the foregoing, to adapt means to change the shape, to remould, put in a new form from an existing or original one. There is always a reason to adapt. Perhaps, you want to appeal to a different audience or enlarge an existing one; to change perspective or to make better, or to do a complete repackaging. Whatever the reason for adaptation, the adapted work either loses or gains from its original form. Sometimes, adaptation can be from one medium to the other or from the same medium. For example, Sophocles’ King Oedipus (Oedipus Rex), a Greek play, was adapted to the Nigerian dramatic and Yoruba cultural space by Ola Rotimi as The Gods Are Not to Blame. Here, Rotimi gives the play an interpretation along the rich Yoruba culture and tradition.

As noted earlier, adaptation is an essential aspect of literary experience. It can be posited that all artists and creative writers are adapters. Why? This is because they adapt from the work of the Master Creator, from God, who is the creator of all things. This observation tends to imply that originality does not exist. Not, at all. Originality exists because God himself endowed all creative people with ingenious skills and talents to extend His work. Just as Herbert Marshall McLuhan once said that “the media are the extensions of man,” even so all artists in their various ways extend the works of God. Equally, as Robert Browning makes us understand, “the reach of man must exceed his grasp, or, what’s Heaven for?” Thus, by the grace of Heaven (God), artists creatively actualize their ambitions and release their creative spirits in works that are original. If the above observations are true, the question needs to be asked, why have Nollywood filmmakers not embraced the avalanche of literary harvests from the Nigerian literary scene to enrich Nigeria’s/Africa’s filmic and visual space?

This question seems contradictory because it has been said that there is a healthy relationship between the literary genres and their filmic counterparts. Examples have also been given. The point being made, however, is that the relationship between Nigerian literature and film is not as robust as it should be and we here adduce reasons why it is so. Agreed, some movies have benefitted from adaptation. There is Sam Ukala’s Akpakaland, which was shot into film of the same title by the playwright himself who also both featured in and directed the film version. We also have the Igbo language novel, Omenuko, by Pita Nwana, which was adapted into an Igbo indigenous language movie as Omenuko Igwegbe; There is also the adaptation of Achebe’s novels-Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease,- into film, Bullfrog in the sun, by Francis Oladele. Oladele’s efforts and challenges in doing the adaptation were commendable.

In the first place, he combined two different novels of the same author, and that has remained the first and only effort of its kind in the country. In the second place, he faced challenges which could serve as one of the reasons why filmmakers shy away from adaptation. He had wanted to retain the title, Things Fall Apart, for his film, but coming within the first decade of the civil war, with the government preoccupied with its slogan of the three Rs-Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation;- as well as the theory of no victor, no vanquished; it felt that Oladele retaining the title of Things fall Apart at such crucial time was uncalled for, because as the government said, nothing was falling apart in the country; and so it was censored. Oladele had no choice but to adopt the innocuous and unattractive title, Bullfrog in the Sun for his film.

Now, why do Nigerian moviemakers shy away from adaptation? The reasons may be as varied as there are moviemakers. As the saying has it, every person has his cross. One of the reasons has already been given as government interference via censorship. Movie making is highly finance intensive and no filmmaker wants to risk his money being stuck as a consequence of government’s displeasure. So, if adaptation is likely to lead to problems, it is better to take refuge in the straight works of imagination that offend nobody. Again, adaptation by its very nature attracts problems as corpses attract flies. In the first instance, what is being adapted is another person’s work; so permission must be given, failure of which the adaptor risks copyright infringement. This permission being obtained may require paying royalty to the copyright owner as well as meeting other agreements, depending on the purpose for which the work is being adapted. It is just possible that the movie makers would prefer to do without this extra expense and direct their energies in doing fresh work devoid of encumbrances.

Again, adaptation comes in several ways and these affect the degree/level of faithfulness to the original work. An adapted work is an independent, creative work of the adaptor. Many writers are sentimental about their work and would want it reproduced without a change and this militates against the spirit of creativity. They would want a slavish faithful adherence to their book. This would rob the director/adaptor his own creative release as he becomes a mere interpreter and not a creator. This no doubt, limits creativity and would also affect the desire to adapt. Every artist craves freedom. On the other hand, the adaptation may be just in name if the adaptor sees nothing else to retain in the original. This type of adaptation can be misleading as the reader/viewer may wish to see the work from another view point to no avail. This embarrassing situation happened to me once, when on seeing a movie with the title of the historical event of the colonial period, I bought it only to discover that there was no relationship between the movie and the event whose title, Aba Riot, it adopted. I have since wondered why the movie maker chose that title.

Again, adaptation both challenges and limits the creativity of the adaptor. This is particularly true when the original author is involved in the adaptation. As noted, some writers are touchy about their work, and not being conversant with the new medium, may oppose the changes being made to their work for the purpose of the new medium. It can also engender creativity if the adapter has a free hand to operate. This enables him to free the work being adapted from its inherent limitations.

Experts have identified three approaches to adaptation. These are (1). Follow the book. This means a rigid adherence to the original; what was referred to earlier as slavish faithfulness to the work. (2). Work from key scenes. Here, the adapter takes the highpoints in the original work and reconstructs the story as he/she deems fit. Lastly (3), Construct an original screenplay based on the book. In this last example, the adapter can choose to use only the idea of the original work, bearing in mind the storyline, retaining or discarding the characters as he seems fit, and allowing his own creativity a free reign. These approaches naturally overlap and have their individual highpoints and downturns. The end result, however, is that out of the original work, comes something new. This in itself is one of the major advantages of adaptation: it increases the corpus of work in the given medium/genre.

It updates information and adds life to what was in existence. It enlarges the generic space and makes the work available to more people. It helps in the preservation of the work and increases its accessibility. For example, the story of Romeo and Juliet; has been preserved both in its original drama form as well as in the film medium. It also has several versions available in the various media. The same is true in all cases of adaptation. It creates room for more perspectives, a new medium. It equally creates employment. For example, the literary genre of prose (novel) is a product of one person, in conception as a manuscript, at least, and that is the novelist. Its publication gives employment to several people. These employees are tripled, even quadrupled, if the novel gets adapted into drama or film.

The rich literature of Nigeria in all its genres is, therefore, a variegated quarry of untapped creativity waiting to be tapped and gainfully, too. Beyond Nigerian literature, there are also the African, Black and World literatures to be explored and utilized for greater value. Adaptation enlarges the scope of literature, especially prose, and makes it traverse other media like television, theatre and film. A play like Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, which recently celebrated its forty (40) years of publication through various productions on stage, if adapted into film, would expose the limitless richness of Yoruba culture as it would go beyond the physical aesthetics to delve into the chthonic realm of the world of the unborn, the ancestral abode.

One recalls with nostalgia, the stage adaptation of Amos Tutuola’s novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by the duo of Michelle La Foret (Script), and Bode Sowande, (Performance designer), performed at the University of Ibadan Arts Theatre, from March 12 to 15, 1990. The memory of the play on stage has remained so vivid and has not faded with the years because the abstract characters in the novel were now freed from their frozen rigidity and given form and personality on stage. The merits of drama as a literary form helped to liberate the novel from its own limited generic form. Whereas the imagination took preeminence in the prose, on stage, the imagined characters become real in every conceivable form. They become human and exhibit human attributes and the realm of imagination, of illusion and fiction pave way for the domain of physical reality. My life in the Bush of Ghosts is indeed a harvest of theatrical richness.

Filmic adaptation of novels liberates the abstract characters from their frozen form and endows them with life and spontaneity. It also makes the story and its subject matter accessible and in this way enlarges its audience as noted earlier. In fact, prose works, which have been adapted into film, indeed, any work which has passed through adaptation has more audience than those which have not had such benefits. This was what happened after I read the novel, Da Vinci Code; I couldn’t wait to watch its film version! The availability of any work of art in one medium creates a longing for it in another medium. This is because the adapted work has the tendency to reveal more than what one already knows about the work and so adds to one’s knowledge of same. The Mosaic Ten Commandments practically jump out of the biblical pages when one watches its film version.

Nigerian movie makers should endeavour to rise to the challenges posed by the adaptation of literary works from one form to another. It is a way of enriching and enlarging the national literature via manifestation and preservation in many different forms thereby making such works available to a wider audience and readership and thus enlarging the nation’s base of popular culture.
• Anyanwu teaches Film Studies and Creative Writing at the Delta State University, Abraka

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