When we think of great adaptations, Victor Fleming’s 1939 film, Gone with the Wind, an epic 3hr 58m experience, holds the mind; James Ivory’s adaptation of the Nobel laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “The Remains of the Day”, would follow; and, inevitably, Anthony Minghella’s excellent The English Patient must feature. All three are excellent works coupled with the popularity of adaptations like the Harry Potter series. There are countless successful films based on books all over, and to counterweight that, there are terrible ones as well. Great vision is needed to succeed at adapting a novel for various reasons, the most obvious is the consciousness that you are transferring a complete, independent artistic experience from one medium to another, and the former’s essence must be respected. It is why David Selznick fought the censorship system in 1939 to keep the final iconic line in Gone with the Wind; it is why Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a mediocre film; and it is why Kunle Afolayan’s Swallow feels empty—the essence of Sefi Atta’s 2008 novel is missing.
It is unfair to judge a film by the book it’s adapted from. They are standalone works, the same but different. Yet it is impossible to see an adaptation without thinking of the source material. The problem with adapting a book is that there are levels of character introspection, profoundly internal and subconscious, that film, a visual reliant medium, can’t depict. And this is why most film adaptations rely on voice overs. Swallow lines up as a reflection of 80s Lagos, a society in the grip of military dictatorship, corruption, and middle-class poverty. Tolani (Eniola ‘Niyola’ Akinbo) is a young struggling woman in a repressive society. She deals with her abusive boss, a shady lover, and a materialistic friend. While she balances these relationships, Tolani must survive the poverty of the day. Her friend, Rose (Ijeoma Grace Agu), meets the unscrupulous OC (Kelvin Ikeduba) who introduces her to drug smuggling. And Tolani must decide whether she wants to be a drug mule or remain an upright, poor Nigerian.
The crux of the film’s narrative, drugs and the unpredictable reasons an average, struggling Nigerian woman would consider smuggling them, is abandoned. The struggles of the middle class Nigerian woman in the 80s could have been highlighted, and the movies had a surfeit of characters to do that through, but it took the easy approach. Mama Ayo (Eniola Badmus) and Mama Chidi (Chioma Chukwuka Akpotha) are portraits of women repressed by circumstance and society, but beyond the monotonous opening voice over for all the side characters, there is no sense of development to them; in fact, there is really no sense of development to any of the characters in the film save Rose—excellently portrayed by Ijeoma Grace Agu. Without any convincing reason for female middle-class drug smuggling beyond Rose’s argument of poverty, the motivation for Tolani or lack thereof, is limpid and doubtful.
Scenes come short of their potential and feel shallow, leaving a sense that more could have transpired; a 2hr-plus superficial experience. In what appears as though superior production value was substituted for narrative strength, we are inundated by paraphernalia from Lagos 80s but the chaos of the city is lost. In an 80s documentary presented by Onyeka Onwenu, Chinua Achebe said, “to live in Lagos is to live in the warfront”; Swallow’s 80s Lagos is eager to remind of the Buhari-Idiagbon War Against Indiscipline but without a soldier in sight to instill the fear that enforced that brutal policy.
The film is handsome, as one would expect of any Kunle Afolayan film. But an increasingly unsettling notion has begun to creep in; that October 1 is the last time Kunle Afolayan made a good film. And that was 2014. Swallow is vapid and monotonous. Its lead, debutant Eniola Akinbo, hard as she tries, looks lacklustre beside Ijeoma Grace Agu—and indeed every time she shares a scene with an experienced actor. She walks tired and beaten from the opening scene to the last, no transitioning whatsoever from the status quo to her eventual mien as displayed in the prologue—the film opens in media res. Just a constant, pitiful depiction of the character, too insistent on inspiring pathos in the viewer and, because it is so obvious, fails every time after the prologue.
Swallow and Half of a Yellow Sun feel reductive because they did not bring enough from their source materials. Greats like Tunde Kelani understand that essence, not production quality, makes excellent adaptations, and that is why Saworoide, like Gone with the Wind, will remain timeless. It is why truthful adaptations run as long as 3hours—time is needed to convert thoughts to vision. Swallow is a tad indecisive, doesn’t know whether to explore Tolani’s relationship with her parents or clamp down on her relationship with Sanwo (Deyemi Okanlawon), or really explore what makes her tick outside those relationships’ influences. The unsettling fear about October 1 being Kunle’s last great film replicates itself in Nollywood’s relationship to adaptations. Owo Eje was the last time any adaptation really held its ground. One walks around these new ones with the last line from Gone with the Wind in mind: Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.
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- Another singsong reminder that Ijeoma Grace Agu did really well with her character.
- Kunle Afolayan in a suit and wig pretending to be a pastor is an interesting cameo. Unconvincing though.
- On the recently published ranking of Kunle Afolayan’s films, Swallow would rank higher than Mokalik though. Same debutant problem affects this.
Swallow is currently streaming on Netflix.
Note (Monday, October 4, 2021; 10:39pm): The original article had Saworoide in place of Owo Eje. The reviewer didn’t consider Owo Eje (2005), which has now been added.