Limiting the Narrative: This is Not a Romance

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie is a literary tour de force that examines Nigerian culture through the lens of three main characters. The novel focuses on violence and the familial relationships of core characters over a significant period of time, the Biafran War. Some of the fundamental issues that Adichie focuses on is the way femininity and masculinity are performed though these specific characters and how these roles are treacherous and sometimes devastating to relationships and morality. The film representation of Half of a Yellow Sun lacks focus on the subjection of women as inhuman beings, the nature of masculinity as portrayed through sexual violence, and the dichotomization of men and women into separate spheres; by distorting the narrative to fit the lens of Olanna the film is unable to portray femininity and masculinity as a structure of culture and power like Adichie does in the text.

In the film Ugwu is fascinated with Olanna as a sexual being and intimidated by her intellectual prowess. In contrast, in the novel Ugwu is obsessed with the sex to the point where rape becomes a reflective fantasy of the cultural impact of his surroundings. His growth within Odenigbo’s house challenges some of his ideas about masculinity, as both Olanna and Odenigbo are intellects and strong willed in their own sense, but Adichie writes Ugwu’s narrative as if it’s a naturalistic text; Ugwu’s environment has a stronghold on him to the point where he barely makes it out alive. When he is captured and forced to fight his fellow soldier quips, “Target destroyer, aren’t you a man” (458)? When he is captured and forced to participate in a genocide of someone else’s making he is also forced to perform sexuality in a way that he never has before. Ugwu’s role as a man is defined by the sexual nature that intertwines with masculinity in the text. Ugwu’s sexuality is developed as a reflection of Odenigbo and Olanna’s relationship as he continuously overhears their sexual encounters and begins to develop his own understanding of sexuality through them. In Odenigbo’s house he cooks and cleans and Mama, a woman who believes heavily in superstitions and defined and not fluid gender roles, chastises him for wanting to work in the domestic sphere. Ugqu is berated on all sides, in the text, his character arc is shaped by his tendency to survive against the overwhelming forces of sexual violence and obedience to the cultural definitions of masculinity. In the film Ugwu is seen as a quiet observer, all of his actions portray him as a loyal servant of Odenigbo and a passive friend of Olanna. Ugwu’s shy nature and ambivalence is a clear marketing choice that the developers of the film implemented to polarize characters into two categories; good and evil. By doing this the writers uncomplicated the narrative and give the audience clear emotional triggers for sympathizing with Ugwu as he is innocent, loving, and shy. Ugwu’s restructured narrative gives him little influence over the audience, he becomes a stable stronghold in the story of Odenigbo and Olanna, but does little if anything to show the crusade that is coming of age in Nigeria during the Biafran War.

In the novel, Richard seeks to become a part of Nigeria, by learning the language, claiming the land as his own, and writing about the world around him. His outlook on Nigeria is in direct opposition of Susan, who believes that the people around them need to be civilized and more than that, colonized. Early in the text, Richard is taken to parties as the trophy boyfriend of Susan, Adiche explains, “[Richard]…didn’t even mind when a pasty-faced drunk woman referred to him as Susan’s pretty boy” (66). This sense of emasculation is crucial to the development of Richard’s character. He is emotionally invested in Nigeria and he wants it to be a part of his identity, but his impotence limits his ability to create a family in this new place. His only way in is through his attachment and love for Kainene, who he continuously maintains an imperfect connection with through his adultery and inability to perform sexually. Nevertheless, Richard’s desire to avoid being othered leads him to proclaim ownership of Kainene and Nigeria. Richard states, “This was a new start, a new country, their new country” (211). His power to take ownership of Kainene and, further, to write himself into history, gives him control and power that is neither shown nor expressed effectively in the filmic version of Half of a Yellow Sun. In the film Richard is reduced to a secondary character, only seen and perceived as an extension of Kainene. Like Ugwu, he becomes a caricature of a sensitive and tragic artist. Richard’s only viable moment of perceived impotence is when Olanna must take over the driving responsibilities when the pair are searching for Kainene who has gone missing. The forced focus on family in the film diminishes the overwhelming narrative of masculinity that Adiche highlights, and even more so with Richard, it generates a narrative about romance and family rather than ownership and power.

By presenting the film through Olanna’s lens, the film lacks the multitude of perspectives that Adichie emphasizes is crucial to understanding and witnessing different cultures as an outsider. Olanna becomes the protagonist but her growth as a character is strictly limited to the romantic narrative between her and Odenigbo and the small focus on her relationship with her sister. By ignoring the large amounts of sexual violence in the film, the writers were unable to delve deeper into the narratives of sexuality that Adichie focuses on in her book, specifically the liminal sexuality of women. Viewers of the film only get a very objective look into the sexuality of the characters that is only exposed as loving or primal, no one’s body becomes a political battleground for power like it does in the text. Kainene explains to Richard, “They display slabs of meat on tables….my sister and I are meat. We are here so that suitable bachelors will make the kill” (73). Kainene relates the lives of women to that of animals whose only purpose is to serve others, to be killed and consumed by someone else. Amala is the perfect example of this consumption as Mama, supposedly used bad magic to attract Odenigbo to Amala in order to further her lineage. The text clearly focuses on Olanna’s struggle with pregnancy, but the film barely, if at all, emphasizes her fertility. A crucial moment that was omitted from the film was Amala’s attempt to abort her fetus after she is raped by Odenigbo. Amala explains the process, “‘if you eat plenty of hot peppers, they will remove pregnancy.’ She was huddled in the mud like a pathetic animal” (300). Amala’s desire to rid her body of the child and thus dissipate Odenigbo’s lineage is perceived as both primal and detrimental to the drive towards the future, especially if she was carrying a son. The impact of placing romance in the foreground and, essentially, eliminating Kainene’s full narrative does not allow for room to explore Kainene and Olanna’s relationship in relation to gender roles, violence, and power.

As Zoe Norridge points out in her article Sex as Synecdoche, there is a tangible narrative of sex and violence that is, at times, a heavy force that weighs on many characters within the novel; Ugwu in particular. The film restricts this narrative of sexual violence, and in doing so, does not offer a harmonizing conclusion to the violence surrounding these characters. In the novel, Olanna is able to redirect this violence that she witnesses and turn it into a shared bond between her and Odenigbo. Norridge writes, “Through Odenigbo’s tenderness she is able to access a sense of the sadness, the horror of her cousin’s probable rape, mutilation, and death” (28). The film is a weak attempt at synchronizing the categorically western ideals of the symbiotic happy ending leads to forced dichotomies that Adiche avoids within her text. The film offers too many good guy/ bad guy scenarios which generates a false understanding from the viewer. By limiting the complexities of the narrative, and reselling the plot as a whitewashed love story in the midst of war, the film falls into the trap media marketeering towards a mainstream audience. In the film there is no moral ambiguity, there is only good and evil. In the novel Adiche presents story that navigates perspectives of race, gender, and power; and throughout the novel there is no moral high ground there is just life as she presents it; a callous and naturalistic hint at reality.