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Today in History, Chinua Achebe Died. Considering Film/TV Adaptations of His Novels…

Today in History, Chinua Achebe Died. Considering Film/TV Adaptations of His Novels...

Born November 16, 1930, Chinua Achebe died on this day in history, March 21, 2013 after a reported short illness, in Boston. A source close to the family said that he had been sick for a while and was hospitalized in the city. He was eventually laid to rest in his hometown Ogidi, Anambra State in Nigeria.

One of continental Africa’s most widely read towering novelists, revered throughout the world, in memory, I’ve been on the hunt for any film adaptations of the 5 fiction novels he wrote; and, not surprisingly, there aren’t many – certainly not in recent years.

But if any of you reading this knows otherwise, please do share.

What I did discover is that, of his 5 novels (“Things Fall Apart,” “No Longer At Ease,” “Arrow Of God,” “A Man of the People” and “Anthills of the Savannah), one of them (“Things Fall Apart,” likely the work he’s most known for), was adapted to screen as a TV mini-series in 1987, on Nigerian TV by the Nigerian Television Authority.

It was directed by David Orere, and starred veteran Nigerian actor Pete Edochie as the lead character in the novel, Okonkwo.

And as luck would have it, the entire mini-series is on YouTube! Unfortunately, it’s not embeddable, so you’ll have to go there to watch.

Prior to that TV mini-series, in 1971, “Things Fall Apart” was adapted into a film directed by Hans Jurgen Pohland, which starred pioneering Nigerian film and stage actor, Orlando Martins. I couldn’t find much on this film online (a blip here and there, but nothing useful). IMDB says that PBS broadcast it in 1981, so it must exist in some form, somewhere – at least, I’d imagine so. I’ve emailed PBS with an inquiry. If/when I receive a reply, I’ll share here.

When Achebe passed away in 2013, I wondered whether his death would suddenly spark interest in adapting his novels to the screen (not that they need to be, by the way). I couldn’t find any evidence online that there have been any recent attempts – likely not here in the USA, where there just doesn’t seem to be very much interest in the worlds Achebe’s stories are set, nor in the stories themselves.

Each is so specific to Achebe’s homeland, and although his last 2 novels were set in fictional countries, they closely resemble post-colonial Nigeria. As are the themes – most prevalent being the intersection of “African tradition” (particularly Igbo) and modernity, especially within the context of European colonialism.

Not that these are excuses for why his novels haven’t been adapted to film; but rather to suggest that it’ll likely take those who are intimately close to/familiar with the stories to actually see an adaptation through.

Although underneath each novel’s driving narrative are universal themes of identity, ownership, ambition, free will, masculinity, and more, that an ambitious filmmaker might decide to tackle any of Achebe’s novels figuratively, taking some creative liberties with the stories, exploring the themes, setting each work in a completely different world (but with the same relationship dynamics between protagonist and antagonist, creating a similar kind of conflict). 

For example, in the case of “Things Fall Apart,” it could be a futuristic society; think of a film like “Avatar” (and so many others like it, that reinforce trite colonialist tropes), minus the white male hero, and told primarily from the POV of the Na’vi. There are a myriad of possibilities!

However, I’d guess that the millions of Achebe fans (given how widely some of his novels have traveled and been translated) would prefer literal (or near-literal) translations of his words to screens, rather than films that are “inspired by.”

Of course there are rights issues in terms of optioning any of his books, that I’m not qualified to comment on. The only film industry entanglement Achebe ever had, that I know of, is his forcing the producers of the 50 Cent film, initially titled “Things Fall Apart,” to change the name to “All Things Fall Apart,” in order to avoid audiences making any connections between his seminal, well-known piece of literature, and 50 Cent’s movie – an awful movie at that.

It was reported that the producers offered Achebe $1 million to keep the name, but he declined; and thus the name change.

If anyone reading this has ever tried to option, or has optioned an Achebe novel, or is aware of any studio/production company/filmmaker/actor/etc who has ever tried to option, or has optioned an Achebe novel recently and is developing a film or TV series adaptation, I’d love to know more, so feel free to email me at obensont@gmail.com. Or post a comment below.

Achebe’s is survived by his wife and 3 children, whom I assume now control his estate.

To watch the 1987 Nigerian TV Authority’s mini-series adaptation of “Things Fall Apart,” click here, as the owner of the YouTube account that uploaded the series hasn’t made the files embeddable.

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