If We Could "Just All Get Along": Bonnie Greer Watches a Rose-Tinted Adaptation of Zadie Smith's White Teeth. (Television)
Greer, Bonnie, New Statesman (1996)
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 under-powered. …