*Spoilers for both the show and the book*
Full disclosure: my opinions are entirely biased due to my love for the book. If I didn’t adore the series so much, I might have enjoyed this, so take my opinion with a pinch of salt. Unfortunately, this was just one of those times where I felt like constantly whining “but the book was soooo much better!” Even if there were parts of the show that were somewhat compelling, I couldn’t get past the changes enough to appreciate it.
I really should’ve predicted that I wouldn’t like this when I got (unreasonably) irritated by the description of the world as “dystopian” (suggesting that the show was tilting away from the alternate history model to make a different kind of social commentary… something that I was soon proved right about). From the opening shots centring on the subject of police brutality, I could tell we were in for a very different story. Already, I could see this was a more modern take on the novels, but I couldn’t quite get my footing as to how different it would be.
You see, initially I was rather taken with the world of the show. While I had the vaguest impression of the setting from the books, the showrunners went to a lot of trouble bringing Albion to life. With its African music and bright visuals, I was immersed in this alternative Britain, seemingly modelled on South Africa during apartheid. While there were some inconsistencies, like a jumble of different accents, I did get a clear sense of place. I can safely say this was a vast improvement on Blackman’s world building… it’s just a shame about everything else.
My first major issue came from Callum. Instead of having the humble ambitions of going to school, he now wishes to join a military academy. Now, I get that they had to adjust aspects of the story to suit the screen, but this was already a leap too far. It immediately takes away his character arc of being a sensitive and intelligent boy, pushed to violence. Of course, even with him in this new role, they can’t fully commit to him being violent from the start. The writers tried very hard to shoehorn him into his original arc, but without any sign of his original personality… which just made me beg the question why make this change at all?
There is much the same issue with Sephy: her personality has been completely neutered. Aside from being a do-gooder and occasional terrorist sympathiser, she doesn’t have a whole lot going for her. Unlike her book counterpart, we don’t get to see what a scrapper she is or any of her interests (beyond Callum). Worse still, with the characters aged up, her naivety isn’t really excusable. In the book, Sephy loves her father, yet slowly realises what he is truly like. Here she comes across as just a bit thick for not seeing through him. Which leads me onto…
WTF is going on with the rest of the characters?! Jasmine Hadley is not nearly distant enough; Kamal Hadley apparently has mind control powers (cos I’ve no idea how he somehow convinces everyone to do his bidding). And everyone is oddly redeemable- even Jude. There’s no sense of real development, because from the beginning we know Dorne is the real villain and thus all the other character’s evil deeds can (conveniently) get pinned on him. Everything is more black and white in this version, with far fewer shades of grey. Forget the nuance and tragedy of the book- it’s been brushed away for far less satisfying commentary and lacklustre conclusions.
And on that note, the plot is a mess. While I liked some aspects of the romance (because in this case remembering the book made it easier to enjoy) it moves way too fast. The twists about Kamal and Jasmine Hadley are revealed too soon. Vital characters, like Lynette, are written out. Instead we get waste-of-time subplots, like Yarrow Hadley. Then there are another million pointless changes- that only every make the narrative worse. For starters, there was the “blanker” incident, which the Authentic Observer has already done a great video about. Plus, there’s the time when “gentle” Callum fires live rounds at a crowd of noughts, including his brother (?!?!) And the fact that Jude bombs a hospital instead of a shopping centre (??!?!) And for some reason there’s a lot of speeches in the trial explaining said terrorism… which apparently persuade the judge to go easy (?!?!) And to top it all off that Callum doesn’t choose to go after Sephy OR choose to save Sephy until he knows she’s pregnant OR make any significant choices (beyond the supremely dumb one of going off to live in the woods with a pregnant girl… let’s see how long that lasts 😉).
Naturally they also had to change the ending. I could see from the start the showrunners weren’t bold enough to kill off Callum. And clearly they found other aspects of the story too problematic as well- which is disappointing, not because I wanted to be emotionally scarred (as I was with the book), but because the dark elements were something that stood out in that case. Blackman didn’t talk down to teens or give us the longed-for happy ending, just because that’s what’s expected. She had the courage to tell a story that wasn’t easy, that didn’t make us comfortable, that offered only glimmers of hope.
Weirdly, the show’s preachy speeches and teary melodrama demand you take the story seriously. And yet, for all that, it’s less powerful. Putting forward the argument that the world is unjust is far less powerful than showing injustices unfolding. Blackman had the courage to put the story and characters first- and the message was more impactful for it. This adaptation put the message first and butchered the heart of the story. Sadly, the only tragedy here is how much this failed to live up to a beautiful book.
I’m really curious- how many of you have read the series or seen the show? What did you think of either of them? Let me know in the comments!