Morgan Briarwood (briarwood) wrote,
Morgan Briarwood

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Thinky thoughts on The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency

You know I'm a huge fan of the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I was a fan of the books long before there was talk of a TV series. Last year's TV-movie was wonderful; now there's a (sadly short) series on BBC.

The TV movie was very faithful to the first novel; it left out only the long flashback about Mme Ramotswe's father's years working in the mines. The series is not a straight adaption, but most of the details are recognisable from the novels; they've just been mixed-and-matched, and in some areas details are different.

I wasn't sure about the little boy in the first episode - Wellington - but having thought it over I'm enjoying the character. I guess he's replacing Puso from the novels. And we got to meet Motholeli! Only briefly, but I'm glad they made the effort to include her. I wonder if she'll appear again... They've managed to squeeze in most of the recurring characters from the novels; I'm amused to note that the second apprentice finally got a name in the latest novel, just in time for the TV series. In fact I'd be willing to bet that the TV series is the only reason poor Fanwell got a name at all!

The novels deal with the big issues very subtlely. It's Alexander McCall Smith's style - like Jane Austen, he prefers to ignore the wide events of the world in favour of the moral dilemmas of day-to-day life. He barely touches on the political turmoil in Zimbabwe. The aftermath of Apartheid is mentioned just once in ten novels and then only in passing. The terrible exploitations of the diamond industry in Botswana itself play no role in the novels (Obed Ramotswe was a miner, but A McCS is careful to place his story in South Africa). The social and economic effects of HIV are referenced only obliquely in the early novels, so much so that if you came to the text unaware that HIV is a problem in Africa, you'd miss it completely. Later novels are better on the HIV issue at least, as one character is directly affected by her brother's illness and death. The TV series does a better job of striking the balance on all these issues, with characters shown to be aware of these things without making them a central plot point, and the brother's sickness has a more prominent role.

One of the lovely things about the novels is the ethnic mix. The series is set in Botswana, so obviously the majority of the characters are black-African. The author (via the POV characters) pays attention to the ethnic origins of characters within that: there's a real sense of the different languages and cultures that make up the country - the Kalahari bushmen, immigrants from the surrounding countries, the differences in culture and wealth between the villages and towns. In addition, occasionally there have been characters of other ethnic origins, including Indian and white characters.

The TV series added an element of diversity missing from the novels: the gay character BK. I love BK! He's a bit of a cliche - very camp, very, very gay - and I would have preferred a lesbian character given the show's focus on women, but I do love BK. But there's been less attention to the ethnic diversity I notice in the novels. The whole cast is black (and if you're thinking that it should be, I don't disagree), some British actors, some American, many African...and given recent events like the casting of the Avatar movie, that's marvellous to see. But it leaves me wondering.

Last night's episode included a storyline from Tears of the Giraffe: an American woman searching for her son who disappeared ten years earlier. In the novels, the woman is one of only two characters (in ten novels) specifically described as white. (There are others implied to be white: in the same story her son and husband may be white but we're not told that, and Carla, the son's girlfriend is described only as South African - again, the reader is left to assume ethnicity from that. In another novel another South African character is described as blond, and thus can be assumed to be white. Mostly the reader is left to assume, and given the setting, the reader's default assumption should be that the characters are black and from Botswana.)

In last night's episode this American woman was cast as black. Now, please don't misunderstand me: I am not comparing this switch in casting to such travesties as Avatar. I'm absolutely not about to rant on how terrible it is that they cast a black actress as a white character. I think it's great that they did. But it's a thought-provoking choice.

Watching the episode as a long-time fan of these stories (and I'd so hoped that this case would be included in the series), my immediate thought was No, that's wrong! - I don't mean wrong as a judgement, just that the actress didn't fit my mental image of the character. I had to go back to the text to make sure I wasn't just assuming she was white because she was American, but no: Mrs Curtin is specifically described as a white woman in the novel. It stands out, because so few characters are. In the novel she's the wife of an American diplomat; the TV series made her husband a businessman, with no specifics as to the business, and gave the son a different reason for coming to Botswana. The son's story in the novel would be more appropriate for an African-American character: he speaks of having "come home" to Africa, for example, which led me to think that perhaps the "off-stage" father was of African ancestry (the novel doesn't specify). In the TV series he's a Stanford graduate (African American) who came to Botswana to study desert agriculture.

Ultimately, the casting choice doesn't detract from (or improve) the story; it just changes it. And maybe that was the point - to change the story just enough to make it fresh for the TV series.

I don't know if the story about the Indian family will make it into the series. I think I'd be more upset about a change of ethnicity there, as the culture aspect is integral to that story.

What else? I love the look of the show - the bright colours and the scenery of Botswana. I love how true to the spirit of the stories they've kept it. I love that it's all about the women, and that they haven't shied away from the domestic violence storyline.

I hope...that we'll see Motholeli again, and that they won't mess with her background, because it shows what a strong kid she is. I hope the romance will reach its conclusion as it did in the first novel. I really, really hope there'll be a second series. And more!
Tags: fandom:no1ladiesdetectiveagency

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