If we could "just all get along" . . .
Television - Bonnie Greer watches a rose-tinted adaptation of Zadie Smith's White Teeth
A fine adaptation not only renders a literary work into watchable drama, but it can also illuminate the novel itself and throw up hidden parts that are sometimes obscured by the very language and style of the book.
Simon Burke's four-part dramatisation of Zadie Smith's award-winning first novel captures all the verve and sheer confidence of this important debut, while Julian Jarrold's restless camera matches the amazing sweep of the work. The production never flattens out the narrative, and is one of the few examples of a made-for-television epic that makes you want to reread the source material.
Burke has broken this huge novel open and divided it into four parts. Each part is a kind of odyssey through Willesden, north London. We visit the pubs, the Indian restaurants, the exteriors and interiors of homes and schools, all accompanied by a great soundtrack from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s.
The performances are, for the most part, wonderful - especially from Christopher Simpson in the dual role of the twins Magid and Millat, and Om Puri as the father, Samad Iqbal. It is their work that reveals the other layer of White Teeth.
In part one, we are introduced to a black woman Clara, a refugee from her mother's fanatical attachment to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Clara eventually finds solace in sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. She escapes the restrictions of her mother's faith, and ends up with Archie Jones, adrift in his own world of loserdom. Her mother preaches that the end of the world will occur on New Year's Eve, and when it doesn't happen, Clara and Archie marry.
From the mirth and optimism of episode one, things turn darker, so to speak, as Samad struggles against his lust for his sons' teacher. Again, it is interracial sex that sets him free, but not free enough to escape the edicts of his religious conscience. He sends one of his twin sons, Magid (the one who saw evidence of his adultery), to Pakistan in order to become the Muslim he himself cannot be.
It is the evil of fundamentalism that becomes evident as the other message of White Teeth. Whether it is the fundamentalism of animal rights lovers, of Irie's Bible-bashing grandmother or of certain tenets of Islam , it can all be dealt with if we adhere to the words of LA police victim Rodney King and "just all get along".
Yet curiously, Irie, the child of Archie and Clara, who should be the torch-carrier of this message, is strangely underpowered. We first meet the adolescent Irie under attack at school for being a swot. A little later she complains to her mother: "I'm ugly, fat, short-sighted and my hair's all frizzy." Her mother assures her that she is beautiful, but Irie is having none of it.
She makes herself over with straight hair extensions and a short skirt. She stops traffic but only disgusts the man of her dreams, Samad's son Millat, a real "homeboy" and the despair of his parents. Magid returns from Pakistan as the worse thing he could be, an atheist, while Millat joins KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation), a militant Islamic group who dress like extras from Reservoir Dogs, and who, in their dark suits and shades, cannot even manage to catch a bus.
Simon Burke's adaptation relies on the Magid/Millat storyline in order to give the story some dramatic tension. Unfortunately, this involves delving into the novel's take on Islam, always its dodgiest bit.
Even during the war, when Archie allows a Mengele type to escape from Dachau because he cannot bring himself to execute the murderer, his mate Samad assumes that "he did his duty" and killed the man when he sees Archie digging a grave. Allah "the Merciful" seems to play little part in Samad's life.
His words to Archie at the end, when he discovers that the German scientist he supposed killed by Archie is still alive, declare that their whole relationship has been a lie. And although Irie is carrying twins at the end after a one-night stand with Millat, the assumption is that they will be kept well away from grandpa Samad's household - and who can blame her?
White Teeth waves the banner against anything that rigidly codifies a human being, boxes them in, labels them, and makes them dance to the tune of an old world and old ways. The production returns Channel 4 to the good old days when you could count on it to give you life here, rather than life on the Upper West Side of New York. But it also reveals White Teeth's message to be a rose-tinted one of mixed-race families who can bring rigidity and labelling to an end. This, in itself, is a fundamentalist point of view. Although a sunny one.
Bonnie Greer is a novelist and playwright
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis