The TV Movie Adaptation of ‘NW’ May Flatten Zadie Smith’s Literary Experimentation — Yet it Remains Wholly Compelling

The critical generalization typically goes that movies that are too loyal to their book source material can seem more like live action summaries — jumping from important moment to important moment without ever stopping to breathe — than their own artistic statements. (Thus the argument that series adaptations are the superior form to be extracted from a novel, and that short stories and novellas translate more seamlessly to feature film length.) But what if a movie is an adaptation of a novel that itself devotes its whole final third to summarizing an entire life in miniature scenes — often two or three on a page — as though the reader were actually flipping through a long photo album, or for that matter watching a long film montage?

The TV movie adaptation (out tomorrow on BritBox, the U.S.-available service containing “the biggest streaming collection of British TV”) of Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel NW is loyal on a narrative level, and it often works. The film, which aired on BBC 2 late last year, translates Smith’s triptych of coalescing characters and stylistic shifts into a cohesive, gripping, socially meticulous 90 minute film. It’s largely bolstered by Nikki Amuka-Bird, Phoebe Fox, O-T Fagbenle and Richie Campbell’s ability to wholly capture us with their performances within each of their characters’ limited moments in focus. 

Like the book, the film is broken up into three sections, each centering around a character from the fictional Caldwell housing project in Northwest London — with each character’s life paths having diverged based on the interplay of their own decisions and a multifariously prejudiced society’s decisions for them.

The first section follows Phoebe Fox’s Leah Hanwell, a white woman who grew up in Caldwell and is now in her ’30s, having achieved some economic mobility, though still living across the street from the council estate of her youth — seemingly in part due to an attachment to her childhood, and an overarching anxious relationship to time. It’s so anxious, in fact, that while her husband Michel thinks they’re trying to have a baby, she’s surreptitiously taking birth control. So anxious that in the book, her section is rendered in beautiful, strange stream of consciousness, where thoughts seem to be slipping away from her before she can catch up with them, and where every new moment feels like an interruption.

Director Saul Dibb doesn’t make stylistic efforts to change his filmmaking vocabulary section by section as Smith does in the novel, and writer Rachel Bennette’s screenplay certainly can’t totally emulate the narrated changes in voice, so it doesn’t fully capture the singularity of this character’s inner voice as Smith rendered her — but rather instead focuses on the merging of two concrete anxiety-inducing factors in Leah’s life. Beyond hiding the sabotage of her pregnancy-attempts from her husband, there’s the string of events that occurs after Leah lets a woman who claims she’s hard-on-her-luck — and who went to the same school as her — into her home, and lets her borrow a small sum of money. And through the chain reaction of tensions this creates, there’s Natalie Blake — her childhood best friend — to confide in. Or to try to confide in despite all of the bitterness that exists within their friendship — bitterness that seems wrought by how both of them have, after entering adulthood, performed towards British societal expectations of race and class.

As in the book, there’s emphasis on the fact that Natalie — now a barrister with a large pristine home primed for Summer garden parties, two children, and a husband she met at law school — was born Keisha, and changed her name as part of the process of neutralizing her black working class upbringing in the eyes of a society that presumes neutrality within whiteness and capital. As we later see, her sponsor in law school instructs her not to take on social justice cases; because, she claims, her defense, as a woman of color, will rather seem like an affront to the justice institution overlorded by white judges, and thus work against her cause. (As the book’s written, the only times Smith mentions the race of her characters is when they’re white — an attempt to “try and create perhaps a sense of alienation and otherness in this person, the white reader, to remind them that they are not neutral to other people,” Smith told NPR; it’s another subtle flourish that gets lost on this very good adaptation— the type of thing that differentiates a textured experimental novel from a work of straightforward high quality TV moviemaking.)

The second chapter — Felix — is also the shortest, and initially seems isolated. It also, at first, seems more banal: suddenly, in the book, the tense, self-truncating, hyperactive prose of the Leah section flattens into a very traditional third-person style. Again, the film doesn’t signal changes with noticeable stylistic shifts — and this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to explore the ways visual experimentation might be able to match Smith’s verbal sense of it. Rather, here, we simply enter the next chapter through the title, “Felix,” and the fact that we’re suddenly in the bedroom with the character, played by Looking/The Handmaid’s Tale actor O-T Fagbenle, and his girlfriend. Felix is a seemingly chipper man — whose sense of levity, it turns out, comes from having a new lease on life: he’s recovering from addiction, in love, working as a mechanic, and printing a line of goofy T-shirts proclaiming a love for girls of assorted ethnicities. A tragedy in this passage links it to the other two chapters — but its relative isolation is also telling: this film, like the novel, draws on the paradoxes or urban life, the cell-like connectivity of a city coupled with its alienating tendency to turn residents, particularly the underprivileged, into statistics and symbols.

The last passage — focusing on Natalie — is the only one that fully emulates the chosen style within the book (though it couches it within a straightforward film conceit — the flashback montage — rather than leaving Smith’s legal document-like rundown of a woman self-creating and self-masking less explained). Here, after we see the consequences of Natalie’s newfound tendency to secretly engage in threesomes with strangers, she has suicidal ideations, and through this we’re plunged back into her past: seeing her as Keisha, and how Keisha and Leah met, bonded, then bifurcated, as Keisha, in collaboration with her coveted education and the money that ensued, tailored herself into Natalie. Race and class — and their strain on the indelible personalities beneath social perception — have informed both Leah and Natalie’s paths and separate existential crises. Leah prides herself on not having adhered to certain bourgeois norms, on her compassion towards other less fortunate residents from Caldwell, but her whiteness has made it easier for her to live certain ideals with nonchalance. Meanwhile, Keisha — who outwardly looks down on other residents of Caldwell who didn’t fare as well — was informed at a young age that she’d have to work twice as hard because of her color, and she internalized that, to the point of identity crisis.

Coursing through all three of the narratives is Nathan (Richie Campbell) — someone who tellingly doesn’t get his own section, because as far as society is concerned, he’s a specter. Countering Natalie’s notion that the people who didn’t make it out of Caldwell just didn’t work hard enough, Nathan, their former classmate — a black man who they assert did everything well, and whose charm and abilities made him everyone’s school crush back in their high school days — is now encountered by each character as a man begging for money on the street. And his narrative unexpectedly, violently laces their own. The life he lives is felt as the abstract threat of all of the characters who started out poor: that, within an unsupportive system, there was the chance that they’d only become poorer. But he is, in fact, a person and not an abstraction, and the characters are ultimately forced to see him on very a real level.

Ultimately, the film is an achievement in that it manages to follow the narrative yarn of the book closely without feeling like too much of an echo of something bigger and better — and when it feels like a summary, there’s some deliberateness, and a literary precedent, to that. Some moments — like an explosive argument between Natalie and her husband, and the fallout of it — would benefit from more build, and this could easily have been 30 minutes longer. But within the brief amount of time they’re given, Amuka-Bird, Fox, Fagbenle, and Campbell bring Smith’s characters to painfully naturalistic life. And though it may not be bold in reflecting the stylistic ideas of the novel, the direction of moments of conflict — particularly the animosity between the two friends — is rendered with subtlety and grace by Dibb, who also uses violence here in a smartly confrontational fashion: making us watch for way too long to emphasize the fact that no one’s watching. Like the book, the film agilely begins to create a maze of characters, through which big questions — about systemic complicity, luck versus deliberation, and who from within a poor, largely POC community gets to be the face of white capitalist society’s selective mobility and leadership, and who get to be that community’s ghosts — lurk around every corner.