Noughts + Crosses [THE ADAPTATION SERIES]
by Ada Barume
I read the first book of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series when I was about 13. If you read the books as a young brown teenager like I did, you might understand the deeply profound and mildly traumatising effect it had on me. In case you haven’t read it, the basic premise of the book is a sort of racial switcheroo, where the ruling elite are the dark-skinned Crosses and the oppressed underclass are the light/white-skinned Noughts. In this alternate world we follow the lives of Sephy Hadley (a young, rich Cross) and Callum McGregor (a young, poor Nought) who’s unlikely friendship eventually flourishes into romance. The story carries a few Romeo-and-Juliet-style narrative tropes – star crossed lovers from opposite sides of a racial divide, with a couple of frustrating undelivered messages and badly timed rendezvous thrown in.
For a young adult readership, I think it’s worth mentioning that the book is also very gritty. It doesn’t shy away from domestic abuse, alcoholism, police brutality, even sexual violence. In comparison, one of the aspects of the BBC’s adaptation that struck me was how much the violence was toned down. That said, this adaptation was really pretty good. It’s clear that Blackman herself had a hand in its production as a series writer for all six episodes. The ‘world’ is slightly different to that in the book and, as can be expected, certain characters and storylines have been shortened, spliced and edited for cinematic convenience. However, where the novel allowed for greater subtlety in the characterisation – in part thanks to the first-person narration – the screen absolutely made the most of its command over the visual. The attention to detail was striking, from Meggie’s dodgy perm to the ‘Mother Aprica’ statue towering over the Thames. A great deal of credit must go to the hair and costume departments, each scene is awash with African prints and a great variety of Afro hairstyles.
Overall the TV adaption wavered from the original novel in three major ways: the historical time and place of the story, the characters and their relationships; and, most strikingly, the levels of violence.
Historical Time and Place
Blackman’s novel is never located within a specific era or geographical place. The reader is simply told that we are in a place where Noughts and Crosses cannot be friends. I always imagined this fictional country to look something like Apartheid South Africa: a strict and violent segregation where Crosses like Sephy have beautiful houses with private beaches and lots of nought staff. ‘Meadowview’ is a part of town where no darker-skinned, well-to-do Cross ever wants to find themselves. I imagined it could be modelled on the vast shanty towns of Cape Town.
But certain other details of the book hint at the Jim Crow South. On Callum’s first day of school at Heathcroft he is escorted by police officers to protect him from an angry mob of pro-segregationist Crosses. It’s reminiscent of the Brown vs Board of education decision that lead to the Little Rock Nine being attacked on their first day at school.
The Liberation Militia (or ‘LM’) that Callum finally joins at the end of the novel could be the Black Panthers. Or it could be modelled on any number of Africa’s independence and nationalist organisations. It’s also hard to pin down exactly whether the Noughts or the Crosses are in a majority, which obviously would help to place the story in either colonised Africa or the segregated American South.
This ambiguity, I assume, is a deliberate choice by Blackman. Afterall, if there is one thing we know about racism, it’s that it’s almost universal. Being an ‘othered’ body anywhere in the world is so often based on the colour and tone of your skin. The point being that “People are people. We’ll always find a way to mess up, doesn’t matter who’s in charge” – or, for that matter, where we are.
The BBC’s series takes a different approach. In the opening sequence the audience is firmly placed within a specific time and place: namely, colonial Albion, which was occupied by the Aprican empire 700 years ago. This is London in the 21st century and it’s made abundantly obvious. Unlike the novel, we are also expressly told that ‘Albion’ is a periphery of the metropole Aprica. Albion, then, is populated by a majority of Noughts ruled over by an elite minority of Crosses. It’s more firmly paralleled with somewhere like pre-independence Zimbabwe, a ruthless and oppressive ‘foreign’ elite that are terrified of losing their grip on power, using increasingly repressive tactics to quell their paranoia about being outnumbered. The sense of universality is lost but in return the audience is presented with a world that we do immediately recognise. It’s us if it had ‘gone the other way’, and it isn’t pretty.
In these times of raised racial consciousness and international civil rights protests, racism is once again on the public agenda, so it makes sense that the series is keen to set the story in a space that’s closer to home than the novel. The adaptation also reimagines some of the mechanisms of oppression. The novel is full of racists – namely Sephy’s family – but I think the TV series makes a case for a way of thinking about racism that places more emphasis on the systemic rather than the individual. Racism without racists as it were. The most obvious way this is done is with a heavy emphasis on police brutality. Once again, it’s appropriate for the times. Stop-and-search measures are a familiar and immediately understood tool of systemic racism in the UK, and it’s a clever way to connect with modern audiences to have Kamal Hadley (Prime minister and father to Sephy Hadley) use this kind of language. When we still seem to be deciding whether Black lives matter, it feels particularly poignant to see a world that looks so completely alien and yet asks precisely the same questions we’re all grappling with right now.
Generally, the characters are much more sympathetic in the TV series than in the book. Callum’s Nought mum Meggie and Sephy’s Cross mum Jasmine rebuild a friendship after Meggie was unfairly sacked. In the book Jasmine is highly intolerant to even having Noughts in her home. In the TV series, Sephy and her father, Kamal, have a reasonably affectionate and close relationship, Kamal even plays an integral role is letting the lovers run away together when Sephy reveals she is pregnant with Callum’s child. In the book, Sephy’s father calls her a ‘blanker slut’ (blanker being a derogatory term for Nought, equivalent to n****r) after finding out she is carrying Callum’s baby.
All of the characters are somewhat toned down in the adaptation; Callum’s parents get along, his brother has an attack of conscious and decides not to kill Sephy, and Sephy’s parents don’t physically abuse one another. All are redeemed by the final episode. By contrast, in the book Callum’s brother is ruthlessly violent towards Crosses, Sephy’s parents are estranged and negligent, and even Callum’s sweet mother Meggie slaps her husband across the face.
When I first read the book, I distinctly remember finding it quite hard to visualise the characters with the ‘correct’ skin colour. I found it hard to imagine a white person being treated so badly because of the colour of their skin. The language was familiar to me from GCSE history classes about ‘racist America’ but the bodies didn’t fit. This was one of the reasons I was so excited to see a film adaptation of the book. How exactly do you show bodies which already have so much social symbolism attached to them and flip that symbolism on its head? I was intrigued to see how you make an angry white man with a lot of unresolved resentment and a strong propensity towards violent nationalism not come across as highly unsympathetic. One of the ways the TV series got around this problem was to make Callum less violent.
In the book, his first-person narration reveals some of the unsavoury and violent thoughts he has towards Sephy. These are downplayed in the adaptation. The (retrospectively very problematic) ‘sex’ scene between the two is also rewritten for TV. Sephy is not Callum’s hostage at the time, and she doesn’t sob uncontrollably afterwards. We come to understand that the sex was in fact consensual, and presumably Blackman is making a point about the assumption of the hypersexuality of racialised men. Callum is assumed to be a sexual predator (by the other characters as well as the reader) in the same way that the accusation of sexual violence often befalls black men, especially with regards to white women.
In choosing to exclude this from the series, we do lose complexity of character and the broader point that Blackman makes about sex and race. But we are spared the visuals of a white man being sexually violent towards a black woman. We are spared having to watch yet another black body being brutalised on our screens.
This brings us to violence. It is an odd thing to say that this book aimed at teenagers is considerably more violent than a prime-time BBC One drama broadcast after watershed. This difference is best illustrated by the way in which the story ends. In the novel, the final page sees Callum hanged for terrorism in front of a crowd which includes a pregnant Sephy. She screams “I love you” as the trapdoor opens, never to know if he heard her in his final moments – a truly tragic conclusion to this star-crossed lovers’ epic. In the TV series, Sephy and Callum escape together with the help of both Callum’s brother, and Sephy’s father (both extremely violent, hate-filled and unsympathetic characters in the book).
It’s an odd decision, giving this story about a violent system of oppression such a happy ending. I wonder whether it’s because we are not so accustomed to seeing violence committed against white bodies and so viewers would have found the whole watching experience too uncomfortable? Or perhaps realising an all-powerful and violently oppressive black elite murdering white people on television is just something that no-one wants to be responsible for. Maybe it’s all just too traumatising for BBC primetime. Whatever the reason, it certainly makes sense in the context of the rest of the series, which also opts for a lighter touch when it comes to violence. Personally, I think it’s the adaptations biggest failing, to chicken out of an ending that is so deeply arresting and powerful.
The ultimate challenge with this adaptation faced, however, was circumventing existing preconceptions about black and white people. Lekan, Sephy’s boyfriend in the series (who does not exist in the book) is a possessive, entitled and angry black man. But, to me, he still presents as a portrait of black masculinity in ‘our world’. I read his anger and arrogance as hurt and defensiveness, because that is what I understand black masculinity to look like. It takes cognitive work for me to tell myself that in this case that arrogance is actually privilege, because I associate that with white male bodies.
The associations and assumptions we all hold about race, including myself, effectively obscure any ‘true’ adaptation of this novel. To successfully render the book to the screen you would need to deconstruct all the existing prejudices and unconsciousness biases that the audience has about race. That is no mean feat. Where the book gains so much of its power from using the readers own imagination to do the cognitive work of restructuring our racialised world, the adaptation is left to do most of that heavy lifting. Credit where credit is due, it faces up to the challenge and does a pretty good job of it.