About half-way through Zadie Smith’s NW is a chapter made up of nothing but 185 short vignettes of a character’s entire life. This alone is enough to cause me not to envy the person responsible for turning the novel into a live-action adaptation for the small screen. Yet, at 9:00pm on 14 November, BBC Two is airing an impressively orchestrated adaption of the novel, the mis-matched and experimental structuring of the book blended somewhat seamlessly into 90 minutes.
The idea of an adaptation of a Smith novel will always be exciting to me. What Smith does well is write characters, characters that we know, can hear, characters that almost beg to be seen in live-action adaptations. Except the characters often do very little, or take long, indulgent, meandering routes to get to whatever brief action there is. A 2002 Channel 4 adaptation of her debut novel, White Teeth, was headed by an excellent cast of character actors such as Phil Davis, Om Puri and Archie Punjabi, but it suffered somewhat for attempting re-tell the novel across four 50 minute episodes where, perhaps, there was not enough plot to fill all that time.
It seems Smith herself does not wish to be the person to adapt her novels to the small screen either. In a panel discussion at the BFI last month, director Saul Dibb and screenwriter Rachel Benette divulged that Zadie Smith had played almost no role in the adaptation beyond writing the novel, preferring to trust them to get on with it. They have, impressively, managed to stay more-or-less faithful to the text.
NW has three main characters, best friends Leah Hanwell (played by Phoebe Fox) and Natalie Blake (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Felix, played by O-T Fagbenle, who never meets or interacts with the other two. It follows their lives, revolving around NW, the postcode area in North West London where they all grew up. It depicts a familiar London, for once. A London away from the city and luxury flats; the London that most Londoners are living in. A complex system of intertwining narratives bustling past each other on the way to-and-from the nearest station.
‘It depicts a familiar London, for once. A London away from the city and luxury flats; the London that most Londoners are living in’
The actors take on the complexities of the characters so well that I almost wish the script had given them more to play with. Natalie is comically dislikable in parts, which seems an easy and clichéd personification of her role as the barrister with the perfect husband and perfect children. Conversely, Felix has been rid of nearly all flaws he exhibits in the book and is now utterly charming and pleasant in a way that’s almost a little unbelievable. However, managing to fit three elaborate, intertwined, entire lives into just 90 minutes is remarkably well-achieved.
That said, there are points when I can’t help but wish Zadie might have stamped her feet a little. There is a moment in the adaptation where the line, “I am the sole author of the dictionary the defines me” – a fan-favourite from the book that Leah hears on the radio and is so moved by it she writes it down – is attributed to Natalie. It is a jarring misplacement for those familiar with the book, as if the line has been haphazardly squeezed in where possible just because the sentiment of it is too good to lose.
But perhaps the oddest interpretation in the adaptation surrounds what one means by “headscarf”. In the book, around dinner, several characters have a laugh at Leah’s expense when they realise she has told them all a story about being mugged by a drug addict without once mentioning that the woman in question was wearing a headscarf. The humour comes from the assumption that a headscarf, something that visibly marks this woman as a Muslim, would be a key descriptor and marker of identity when painting the scene of their interaction, and that her not mentioning it says something funny about Leah and how she views the world. Or at least, that was my interpretation.
‘There are points when I can’t help but wish Zadie might have stamped her feet a little’
In the adaptation, the “headscarf” is something altogether different. When we see it sported by the character in question it is a red bandana, rolled thinly and tied like an alice band above her fringe. And in the adaptation, Leah does actually mention it when describing the woman to her friends, except she insinuates that the headscarf is to do with “gangs”. Except there is no humour in this; for one, that Leah acknowledges any marker of identity misses the joke that Leah’s character is somewhat “colourblind”, and feels she knows better than to judge people on their appearance. But it also loses humour as it doesn’t tell a narrative we don’t already know. That the addict who steals money for drugs might also have connections to gangs is all a bit, well, so what? And that Leah herself would infer gang connections from something as innocuous as a bandana seems at odds with her character.
It’s moments like these where I wish I could have viewed the film without prior knowledge of the book. The film certainly makes for great television; with two female leads and an incredibly diverse cast, there are no white men carrying the narrative, focusing instead on characters from backgrounds that are often sidelined in British television. Yet, it can’t help but lose some of the speculative humour and multiple interpretations that makes the book so great. As Bennette describes herself, “the book’s ending is startling – it’s designed to make you think and argue and discuss. That’s harder to achieve on screen, where things have to be made concrete, and there’s a greater drive to draw conclusions and wrap stories up.”
It is worth seeing, and as far as adaptations go, it is an honest one. It cleverly manages to make the experimental, James Joyce-esque narrative of NW into a very watchable 90 minutes. But it never quite manages to capture the feelings, desires and motivations of its characters quite as well as Smith’s narration, and, as such, it’s hard to find any kind of moral reasoning or resolve within the characters. Instead, the film is a voyeuristic exercise in, not quite how the other half live, but how most of us, from all backgrounds, live: trudging on daily in spite of it all.