Many contemporary movies are created from existing source materials: novels, memoirs, comic books and graphic novels. Some of them are faithful adaptations, and others share little more than a name and a few major themes. This year, I will compare American texts that have been made into movies, and featuring authors who are women, people of color and immigrants – demographics whose voices have historically been repressed.
“Beasts of No Nation” is the 2005 debut novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. The title comes from a 1989 anti-apartheid album from Nigerian musician and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. The book was adapted into a war drama film in 2015 that was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga.
The novel begins with Agu, the young West African boy who is the narrator, opening his eyes to see he has been discovered by a guerrilla rebel group. His family was separated as civil war swept through their village, and his mother and sister have fled with United Nations peacekeepers, leaving Agu and his father behind. Agu realizes that his only chance of survival is to join the rebels, although they force him to do unspeakably violent things. “I am not wanting to fight today because I am not liking the gun shooting and the knife chopping and the people running… Why can I not just be saying no?”
Throughout the book, Agu struggles to reconcile his previous life full of school, family and reading the Bible with his new life of looting and killing; he rationalizes it by saying that now “he is soldier and this is what soldiers do in war.” The guerrillas offer things that Agu desperately needs: protection, camaraderie with other young boys, a feeling of power in a chaotic world, and revenge against those who separated his family and destroyed his childhood innocence. “All we are knowing is that, before the war we are children and now we are not.”
The book’s epigraph is taken from the Fela Kuti album by the same name, and it sets the tone for the entire text: “This uprising will bring out the beast in us.” It concludes with Agu recounting his story and the changes that the war has manifested, both within himself and to the people around him. Violence strips people of their humanity and empathy, and forces us to resort to a primal mindset of kill or be killed in order to survive. “Everybody is looking like one kind of animal, no more human.”
The book was written in a voice that had an informal, rhythmic repetition to it, and I’m thrilled that the movie was able to replicate the cadence on screen. Author Uzodinma Iweala says that Agu’s voice “tries to convey the purity and simplicity of childhood in contrast to the complexity and chaos of the events happening around him.”
There are quite a few inconsistencies between the book and the movie. The narrator’s flashbacks and memories have been combined into one chronological story because it’s easier for the audience, and so the movie begins at a different point than the book but the progression of events is the same. The movie added an entire scene where Agu and several other boys receive training and are initiated before joining the guerrillas; the book highlights how Agu must adapt and accept their violence immediately in a very literal ‘kill or be killed’ scenario, there is no training period to get used to the idea.
The movie also fabricated a subplot of the battalion’s place in a larger conflict: Commandant receives tactical orders from the leader of the Native Defense Forces (NDF) and even travels to meet with him at the rebel headquarters and discuss ranks and promotions; the book details a more aimless quest without purpose other than to survive and overpower those standing in their way. The book also doesn’t specify how much time has elapsed between when Agu and the others leave Commandant and when he recounts his story – I initially thought weeks or months had passed before Agu could put words to his experiences.
Iweala says, “My characters are not monsters. They are not psychopaths… [They] are people with histories, hopes, and visions of what life should be like. These histories and hopes are sometimes all that they have as a guide through the insanity of war.”
The film has won the following awards:
- Award for Most Valuable Movie of the Year from the Cinema For Peace (2016)
- Excellence in Costume Design for a Contemporary Film from the Costume Designers Guild Awards (2015)
- Best Male Lead and Best Supporting Male from the Film Independent Spirit Awards (2015)
- Breakthrough Performance from the National Board of Review (2015)
- Outstanding Independent Motion Picture from the NAACP Image Awards (2016)
- George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence (2015)
- Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role (2015)
- Marcello Mastroianni Award from the Venice International Film Festival (2015)