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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the movie adaptation of her best selling novel

“I think books are better than films,” says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie matter of factly. “I’m resentful of people who say ‘I haven’t read the book, I’m waiting for the film.’ I restrain myself from making a fist,” she adds, slyly smiling. We’re discussing the highly anticipated film adaptation of her Orange Prize-winning novel Half Of A Yellow Sun. Her story of love and betrayal set against the violent upheavals of the Nigerian Civil War is so expansive that it’s hard for anyone who has read it to imagine how director Biyi Bandele could condense it all into two hours of celluloid. With the help of producer Andrea Calderwood (whose credits include The Last King Of Scotland) and co-stars Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor however, Adichie is happy to report that he’s done a good job. “It’s a beautiful film and deserves to do well.”

She hand selected Bandele but recognised early on that she shouldn’t be part of the creative process. For example, while the film is told from Ugwu the houseboy’s perspective, the film centers on the sisters Olanna and Kainene. “To think that the houseboy wouldn’t be the soul of the film was incomprehensible to me,” she recalls. “But now I think Biyi’s approach was right and it was a good thing that I wasn’t involved. I would have got on Biyi’s nerves!”

Her initial reactions to seeing the film were complex. “For the first 15 minutes it was strange, these characters on screen weren’t who I had imagined them to be but then I really got into it. I was like, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ I connected to it and at the end I was close to tears,” she recalls. “When my family and friends see it they are moved too. In a collective way, the story is close to ‘us’ [Nigerians]. The film elicits an emotional reaction for all those whose families have survived Biafra.”

Adichie - whose third novel Americanah was published to great acclaim in 2013 and who was recently immortalized in pop culture when Beyoncé sampled one of her TED talks on the song Flawless - hopes this film will also contribute to the broader conversation about African arts in the mainstream. Neither art house nor Hollywood, Half Of A Yellow Sun is made by Africans about Africans but at its heart is a romance that everyone can relate to. “There’s an authenticity to this film that changes the conception of what is ‘African’ when it comes to media images. There’s a universality to it but at the same time it’s incredibly rooted in its place as a Nigerian film.”

The era of the film was an exciting one for African fashion. In newly independent Nigeria, women expressed their pride by mixing up western influences with indigenous ones to create bold styles. This aesthetic greatly inspires African designers today. “I love looking at pictures of my mother from the late 1960s and early 1970s. She wore bell-sleeved mini dresses with wedges as well as ichafu and heavy George. She’d go out to parties with her hair threaded and it wasn’t seen as bush or backward,” Adichie says. “In the same way, I’m interested in the way Nigerian fashion designers like Nkwo, Jewel by Lisa, Deola Sagoe and Maki Oh are expressing a new sense of ownership. There’s a mood of possibility in fashion, music, literature and art – people are doing exciting things.”

Half Of A Yellow Sun is showing now in the UK, Nigeria and Australia and is out in May in the US

Portrait: Jackie King

Words: Helen Jennings


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